, Gloucester, MA

December 31, 2012

2012 in Review: Caleigh tragedy topped news coverage

Caleigh tragedy headed local news coverage

By Ray Lamont

---- — By all counts, it happened in an instant.

One moment, 2 1/2-year-old Gloucester toddler Caleigh Ann Harrison was playing on a portion of Long Beach in Rockport, on an outing with her mom, Allison Hammond, her then-4-year-old sister Elizabeth, and the family dog. Then, according to reports, Hammond briefly left to retrieve an errant ball that had sailed over a nearby wall.

When she looked back, Caleigh was gone, not to be seen again.

The gut-wrenching saga of little Caleigh’s disappereance — the questions about whether she had fallen into the water and been swept away by riptides, or in some circles, whether she may have been the victim of an abduction — captured the attention of virtually every resident across Cape Ann and far beyond last April 19. It also sparked a stirring vigil held on Gloucester’s Stacy Boulevard, when the community turned out to mourn the disappearance and apparent loss of one of its own so young. And the tragedy has been chosen by the Times news staff as the biggest news story of 2012.

While the Hammond and Harrison families of Caleigh’s parents came to accept some level of closure when pink capri pants similar to those the toddler was wearing that awful day washed up on Good Harbor Beach in November, it remains a story that’s not fully resolved. And so do many of the stories on the Times’ top 10 list.

Indeed, the No. 2 story — the development of the three massive wind turbines that have changed Gloucester’s skyline from Blackburn Industrial Park — is still very much evolving, with promises of alternative energy savings to come. The exit of NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco, seen as a hope for a new cooperative spirit between the federal agency and Gloucester and New England fishermen, does not become official until February, or until federal officials name a successor. And the advancement of the planned 101-room Beauport Gloucester hotel remains in the application process, perhaps already on a path as the No. 1 story carrying over from 2012 to 2013.

In that sense, 2012 might best be remembered locally as a year without closure, with a majority of the top 10 stories to be continued.

The top 10 story list was chosen based on voting of the Times staff, which drew its selection from an initial field of more than 30 choices. Today’s Times also includes Cape Ann’s top 10 Sports stories of the year, as chosen by Sports editor Nick Curcuru and sports correspondent Conor Walsh, beginning on Page 9.

Here, in summary, are the 10 stories that, more than others, have made 2012 such a memorable and sometiems chilling year.

1. The Caleigh case: The Long Beach disappearance of the Gloucester toddler remains a story to which, in many ways, every parent can relate – and one that encapsulates every parent’s nightmare.

While Rockport and state police focused their search on the waters off Long Beach — fueled that day by hazardous riptides – the story also drew some questions as to whether the little girl may have been adducted, drawing the attention of national media coverage and HLN’s Nancy Grace Show in the process.

But the tragedy also drew out the best in the Gloucester and Cape Ann communities, notably through the May 11 Boulevard vigil that featured prayers and other words of support from grief-stricken residents.

As Mayor Carolyn Kirk put it that night, “Caleigh is a daughter of the city. All of us are daughters and sons of Gloucester, and Gloucester cares when something happens to one of us.”

2. The wind turbine project: On the practical and economic side, the installation of three giant turbines in Blackburn Industrial Park — one at Varian/Applied Materians, the other two on the property of Gloucester Engineering — are expected to bring energy cost savings, including annual savings of up to $450,000 for the city of Gloucester, which is a partner in the Gloucester Engineering towers.

Beyond that, however, the turbines have brought a profound change to Gloucester’s skyline from virtually every vantage point in the city. And their construction and installation process captivated many residents and visitors for days in October and November, when dozens signed their names to one of the blades.

3. The fall of Gloucester’s charter school: This should have been the signature year for the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School, which added a kindergarten and first grade to fill out its planned K-8th grade profile.

But a tumultuous spring and summer of personnel changes, and a fall enrollment that fell short of budgeted projections by nearly 80 students led state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester to recommend revocation of the school’s charter in December because the school was simply no longer viable.

Ultimately, charter school trustees agreed to surrender their charter at the end of the current school year in June, essentially in exchange for getting additional state financial help to carry the school’s operations that far.

Yet an earlier closure remains in play, with enrollment now approaching just the minimum 110 students after 10 more transferred into the city school system just this month.

4. NOAA’s Lubchenco bows out: After nearly four years as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, scientist Jane Lubchenco announced in December she’ll be stepping aside in February — a move that’s bringing a sigh of relief throughout the fishing industry.

Her exit follows a Commerce declaration of the New England fishery as a certiied “ecnomic disaster,” and countless calls from lawmakers, most notably Congressman John Tierney and Sen. Scott Brown, who have openly called for a “change in leadership” at NOAA for two years, thanks to Lubchenco policies that are widely believed to have cost the industry thousands of jobs while shutting down independent boats and hurting other small waterfront businesses.

5. The Beauport Gloucester hotel project: Plans for a 101-room hotel on Gloucester’s Pavilion Beach are still in the development and application stage at year’s end, but the estimated $20 million to $25 million project, headed by New Balance owner Jim Davis and Cruiseport Gloucester’s Sheree DeLorenzo, took a giant step forward when a June vote by the Gloucester City Council approved a hotel overlay zone that opens the door to its development.

The project, pegged for the former Birdseye site in the Fort neighborhood’s marine industrial zone, remains controversial, and many Fort neighbors remain steadfast in their opposition. But the zoning overlay was also hailed by city officials, many residents and business leaders as a big step forward for Gloucester’s economy.

6. The fishing “disaster:” Nearly 10 months after Gov. Deval Patrick filed evidence that the federal government’s fishery management policies have created a true economic “disaster” for the industry and fishing communities like Gloucester, acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank recognized the Northeast groundfishery as such in September.

And while the declaration — two years after the launch of what many fishermen and lawmakers see as a failed catch share management system — did not come with any financial disaster aid attached, U.S. Sen. John Kerry continues to lead a push for more than $100 in such aid for the fishing industry in a package that is still pending on Congress, but would certainly bring needed aid to Gloucester fishermen. Stay tuned.

7. Animal abuse cases: Twice this month, Gloucester residents have had to confront grisly cases of animal abuse — most notably a chilling incident in which a city man is accused of essentially gutting his pet bitbull to retrieve a sealed bag of heroin from the dog’s stomach.

That case, and another in which another man is accused of breaking the leg of his roommate’s pet Beagle mix after it urinated in his apartment, not only shocked many local residents, but has cast a new spotlight on animal abuse laws and pet owners’ rights as the calendar turns to a new year. Both suspects also remain in jail awaiting court hearings in the coming days.

8. The Rockport counselor case: With the grim Penn State sexual abuse scandal still in the national limelight, Rockport school officials came to grips with a case of their own when accusations surfaced that Middle School guidance counselor Howard Kasper — trusted by and popular with many Rockport students and parents — had allegedly abused two students under his supervision in the 1980s when he worked at Beverly’s private Landmark School.

The allegations sent shock waves through the Rockport school community, spurring a divisive grass roots meeting called by parents at the town’s police station. But school officials carried out their own investigation and secured a deal by which Kasper resigned his post and agreed not to appear on school grounds. He remains on the school’s payroll, working part-time on whag Superintendent of Schools Rober Liebow has called “special projects.”

9. Gloucester’s new chiefs: It wasn’t easy, it took longer than anyone expected, and the search for a new fire chief hit a few snags even in the closing stages due to questions surrounding Eric Smith’s qualifications under the advertised job description.

But, by September, Gloucester had finally hired a new police chief and fire chief, placing permanent department leaders in those key positions for the first time in more than three years – and with both Fire Chief Smith and new Police Chief Leonard Campanello coming aboard from outside the city and city departments.

Smith, who came in from Michigan, took the reins in July, while Campanello, brought up from Saugus, took over as police chief in September. Their hirings are the first since city voters and the City Council, respectively, ditched the former Civil Service mandates that had kept chief’s hirings within the department ranks for decades.

10. (tie) Three stories finished in a tie for the Times’ 10th top story spot.

The first is the plight of Gloucester’s city-owned I-4, C-2 waterfront lot, which remains vacant two years after the city acquired it in Jne 2010, and after no bidders stepped up in response to the city’s formal request for proposals this past year.

The second is the sale of Rockport’s Cape Ann Tool Company site, which has boosted hopes for a clearing and revitalization of that property after decades of inactivity and decline.

And the third came in October, when the carcass of a 54-foot fin whale washed ashore in Rockport, becoming something of an odd educational atraction for visitors before it was finally cleared by town officials and volunteers from the New England Aquarium.

Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3438, or at