Westmoreland County year in review: What made news in 2018
A stamp, three documentaries, a television commercial and the making of a motion picture. Oh, and a major anniversary of an iconic children’s TV show created by a treasured American icon.
The year 2018 was big for Latrobe native Fred Rogers, who died in 2003.
The 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking public television series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” came in February. The U.S. Postal Service in March issued a special Forever stamp , with a ceremony at the WQED Fred Rogers Studio A in Pittsburgh, where most of Rogers’ shows were recorded.
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville premiered his documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” in January at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, with the film released to theaters in June. PBS in March debuted “Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like,” a documentary narrated by actor and Pittsburgh native Michael Keaton. WQED in December premiered “Friends and Neighbors,” a documentary it produced on Rogers’ lasting impact as an icon in the Pittsburgh community.
During the World Series in October, Rogers’ voice was featured in a commercial — his first — for Google’s Pixel 3 phone. The commercial showed children exploring the world and learning with the use of a smartphone.
Rogers will be depicted by Academy Award-winning actor and filmmaker Tom Hanks next year in the biopic “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” — which Hanks researched and started filming over the summer and fall.
While Rogers was in the spotlight throughout 2018, several other stories also dominated the local news — at times resonating across the country and even the world. Here is a look at some of those tragedies, losses, special events and accomplishments.
Troubled times for sheriff
Photo by Sean Stipp
It was an action-packed year at the Westmoreland County Sheriff’s Office, particularly for the man in charge and his top deputies.
The state attorney general in February charged Sheriff Jonathan Held, a two-term Republican from Hempfield, with criminal public corruption, claiming he forced deputies and office staff organize and collect items for campaign fundraisers while in uniform and on the job.
Agents in March raided Held’s office in the Westmoreland County Courthouse, taking two computers and boxes of files.
Held’s trial in December ended with a hung jury. After his conviction was announced in court, one juror changed his mind. A retrial is likely.
County officials in October fired Patricia Fritz, the second-ranking member of the sheriff’s department. Her termination came as she appealed a summary harassment conviction in September for physically confronting a union representative.
Fritz, 63, of Mt. Pleasant, was suspended with pay following the August incident. County commissioners eventually barred her from county property.
While attending a training course for new deputy sheriffs at Penn State University, State College police accused Travis Day — who Held hired as a captain in February — of making unwanted advances toward a female deputy sheriff. Police charged Day, 24, of Jeannette, with misdemeanor stalking.
Training academy officials dismissed Day in August. Held suspended him with pay, but county commissioners changed his status to suspended without pay.
Catholic clergy sex abuse
A statewide grand jury capped a two-year investigation into six Pennsylvania Catholic dioceses with the August release of a stunning report that detailed allegations of child sexual abuse against 301 so-called “predator priests” and cover-ups by church leaders.
Many cases detailed in secret church archives investigators obtained from dioceses in Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Scranton and Pittsburgh were decades old. But Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s work yielded two arrests—one each in the Greensburg and Erie dioceses.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (let), walks in with the victim identified as Josh, to speak at a press conference about former Catholic priest John Sweeney pleading guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge of indecent assault, at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Tuesday, July 31, 2018. The attorney general described the sexual abuse that was forced on the as a 10 year old student at St. Margaret Mary Catholic School sometime between 1991 and 1992.
Photo by Dan Speicher
A Westmoreland County judge in December sentenced retired priest John Thomas Sweeney, 75, to 11 ½ months to five years in prison after he pleaded guilty in the sexual assault of a 10-year-old boy at St. Margaret Mary School in Lower Burrell in the 1991-92 school year.
Sweeney was among 19 priests from the Greensburg Diocese named in the grand jury report, which named 99 abusive priests from the Pittsburgh Diocese.
The grand jury report sparked similar probes by attorneys general in other states and an ongoing federal investigation.
Church leaders in the six dioceses and the Philadelphia Archdiocese subsequently established compensation funds to make reparations to abuse survivors.
Antwon Rose killed
A woman raises her in front of stopped traffic after more than 150 people took over the Parkway East in both directions, Thursday, June 22, 2018, to protest East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld’s fatal shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose, a Woodland Hills High School honor student.
Photo by Andrew Russell
On June 19, an East Pittsburgh police officer fatally shot Antwon Rose II, 17, as he fled from a Chevy Cruze stopped on suspicions it had been involved in a nearby drive-by shooting 15 minutes earlier.
While Officer Michael Rosfeld commanded the driver to the ground, Rose and Zaijuan Hester, also 17, ran from the scene. Rosfeld opened fire, hitting Rose in the arm, back and head; he died at the scene.
Rose, who had been an honor student at Woodland Hills High School, was unarmed.
His death sparked weeks of marches and protests, including ones that shutdown the Parkway East in Pittsburgh.
Rosfeld was fired from his job and subsequently charged with homicide by Allegheny County prosecutors. East Pittsburgh later disbanded its police department.
Tree of Life massacre
A gunman entered Tree of Life, a Squirrel Hill synagogue shared by three congregations, on the morning of Oct. 27 and opened fire. Within minutes, 11 congregants were dead and two others injured. Four police officers who raced to the scene also were shot, including one who suffered critical injuries.
It was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
David Knoll of Squirrel Hill puts a hand on his son’s shoulder after reciting Jewish psalms outside of Tree of Life Congregation on Oct. 29, 2018.
Photo by Nate Smallwood
An outporing of sympathy came from around the country and world. President Trump visited Pittsburgh, despite top city and county leaders advising against it.
Authorities said Robert Bowers, 46, of Baldwin, charged into the Tree of Life Congregation with an assault rifle and three handguns.
Before entering, Bowers posted to social media: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
After being shot numerous times and taken into custody inside the synagogue, police reported Bowers as saying, “All these Jews need to die.”
He was indicted on federal hate crime charges, including 11 murders.
After being well ahead of breaking the annual rainfall record, it took until the final weekend of the year for the Pittsburgh region to be poised to set a new highwater mark.
The record of 57.41 inches of precipitation was set in 2004, the year Hurricane Ivan drenched Western Pennsylvania.
Normal annual rainfall for the Pittsburgh region is 37.7 inches, according to the National Weather Service.
Steady precipitation forced Allegheny and Westmoreland counties to issue disaster declarations in hopes of securing federal assistance for municipalities deluged with landslides. That request was denied by the federal government, leaving municipalities and the state on the hook for millions of dollars in damages.
It was the wettest start to a year ever in the Pittsburgh region. That led to the April collapse of a portion of Route 30 in East Pittsburgh, as well as numerous other landslides around the region that forced roads to be closed and retaining walls to be built.
ABC World News Tonight with David Muir tweeted out an aerial video of the portion of Route 30 in East Pittsburgh that dropped 40 feet down a hill early Saturday, April 7, 2018, as the result of a retaining wall collapse and landslide.
Photo by World News Tonight
Allegheny County officials estimated 31 municipalities saw $18 million in damages from landslides between February and April. In Westmoreland County, there were $1.4 million worth of damages in North and South Huntingdon and Rostraver alone in the same timeframe.
In May, PennDOT was monitoring more than 270 slides in eight counties.
Four tornadoes struck Westmoreland County in 2018, leaving a path of destruction with uprooted trees and damaged homes and buildings.
The first pair struck on June 27. One started at Keenan Greenhill Farm in Hempfield and petered out in Udell, Mt. Pleasant Township. The second tornado formed in Unity near Arnold Palmer Regional Airport and swirled for about a mile.
Tornado damage to Keenan’s Green Hill Farm, along Brinker Rd, in Hempfield Twp., is seen onThursday, June 28, 2018. The roof of the barn, milk house, and manure shed, were ripped apart, leaving sheet metal littering the fields of the farm, and flipping over two additional out buildings.
Photo by Dan Speicher
The Hempfield farm was hit again less than four months later in the second pair of tornadoes. On Oct. 2, a tornado uprooted more than 30 trees at an Armbrust-area hobby farm before cutting a path once again onto Keenan Greenhill farm. A second funnel cloud touched down three miles west of Stahlstown (near the border between Donegal and Mt. Pleasant townships.)
A rare February tornado hit a densely-populated part of Uniontown ripping roofs from homes and businesses, toppling trees and leaving debris strewn in the streets. In total, 218 structures sustained some level of damage.
Two major flooding events left residents on opposite sides of Westmoreland County scrambling to safety as waters rose amid heavy rains.
Emergency crews rescued residents from about 30 Ligonier Township homes in June when the Loyalhanna Creek ran over its banks.
After three days of near-constant rain in September from Tropical Storm Gordon, the Youghiogheny River rose more than 6 feet above flood stage, deluging small riverside communities including West Newton and Sutersville.
The U.S. Small Business Administration made low-interest loans available to victims of both floods.
Stadium Casino LLC bid $40.1 million in January for a license to build a mini casino in Westmoreland County, which it later revealed would open at the Westmoreland Mall in the two-story, 100,000-square-foot space formerly occupied by Bon-Ton.
Baltimore-based The Cordish Company, which will build the project, said the proposed $131 million casino would have about 750 slot machines and 30 table games.
Plans are to open by the end of 2019, the company said.
Pennsylvania’s first legal marijuana sales happened in February, as the state’s long-anticipated medical cannabis program debuted. More than 87,000 patients have since signed up.
Solevo Wellness in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood was one of the state’s first marijuana dispensaries, and McKeesport based grower-processor PurePenn had its first marijuana harvest in April.
Early problems included not having enough growers to supply demand, leaving some dispensaries with nothing to sell.
However, medical marijuana in Pennsylvania is expected to continue its rapid growth. The state approved 13 new growers and 23 dispensaries this year, which will double the number of Pennsylvania marijuana facilities.
Dry leaf marijuana, originally prohibited, was approved for sale in July.
Westmoreland County’s first dispensary, located in Greensburg, opened in December. A dispensary in Unity Township is expected to open in 2019.
A federal court ruling in May cleared the way for legal sports betting nationwide. Months later, Pennsylvania became the seventh state with legal sports betting.
In November, Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course near Hershey was the first of Pennsylvania’s 12 casinos to start taking sports bets. Pittsburgh’s Rivers Casino followed in December.
Whether the addition of sports books at Pennsylvania casinos will result in a big payday for casinos — and ultimately, tax revenue for the state — remains to be seen. Some experts have suggested that the state’s $10 million operator license fee paid by casinos that want to host a sports book, along with a 36 percent state tax on gross gaming revenue, might be too high to attract operators to the market. Others have questioned whether gamblers are interested in breaking up with their bookies.
Carbone’s, one of two landmark Italian restaurants in the tiny village of Crabtree, closed in July after 80 years in business.
Natale “Nat” Jr. and Mary Carbone opened the doors along Route 119 in 1938. Over its history, the family estimated they employed nearly 2,000 people and served an estimated 2 million customers.
Its 15,000-square-foot building and 1.2-acre parcel on which it stood was sold to the DeFabo family, which operates Rizzo’s Malabar Inn — Crabtree’s other landmark Italian restaurant.
After keeping the city and region on hold for more than a year, in November online shopping behemoth Amazon passed on Pittsburgh and Allegheny County for its 50,000-job, $5 billion HQ2 project and instead selected New York City and Northern Virginia. Nashville, Tenn., won the consolation prize of a new Operations Center of Excellence with more than 5,000 jobs.
The Seattle tech giant would have had its pick of 44 acres in the Strip District, the 178 acres of the former Jones & Laughlin steel mill in Hazelwood, the former Civic Arena site in the Lower Hill, the 65-acre Carrie Furnace site in Rankin and 152 acres near Pittsburgh International Airport. Amazon also would have received $4 billion in economic incentives.
Crime and courts
In January, Alex Hribal was sentenced to 23 1⁄2 to 60 years in prison for attacking and injuring 20 students and a security guard at Franklin Regional High School nearly four years ago. Hribal had said bullying from other students led to his actions on April 9, 2014.
Hribal made a plea for the end of bullying.
“I want people to not make the same mistakes I did,” he said.
Jurors in February found Ray Shetler Jr., 33, of New Florence, not guilty of murder in the 2015 fatal shooting of St. Clair Township Police Officer Lloyd Reed.
Reed, 54, of Hollsopple, Somerset County, was shot in the chest. Defense lawyers argued Shetler acted in self-defense after the officer fired first.
It was only the fourth time a person charged with fatally shooting a law enforcement officer in Pennsylvania has been found not guilty since 1980.
Family of Unity resident Cassandra Gross, 51, reported her missing after she was last seen April 7.
Her parents contacted police on April 9 — the same day her blind and diabetic dog, Baxter, was found alone in the Beatty Crossroads area. The next day, her burned red 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander was spotted by Norfolk Southern employees in a wooded area along train tracks near Twin Lakes Park.
Gross still has not been found.
State police have searched several areas, including two Unity properties owned by Thomas G. Stanko, 48, who is being held in the Westmoreland County Prison on unrelated charges.
An April 9 Jeannette fire in a block of row houses on South Seventh Avenue killed an elderly woman and seriously injures another person. The six-unit building had no working smoke detectors and had not been inspected since 2013, fire officials said.
Shirley Kocherhans, 87, died. Her body was found in the living room about six feet from the front door.
Property owner Robert Struhala of Greensburg later pleaded guilty to ordinance violations and was ordered to pay $2,300 in fines.
Police in July accused Brian Eric Rendon, 33, of Jeannette, of setting the fire.
A Westmoreland County jury in November returned Melvin Knight to death row for his role in the February 2010 torture slaying of Jennifer Daugherty.
Knight was originally sentenced to death after he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, kidnapping and other offenses in 2012. A state appeals court in 2016 vacated the death sentence and ordered a new penalty trial for Knight.
Knight and five roommates held the 30-year-old woman from Mt. Pleasant, who was mentally impaired, captive in their Greensburg apartment for more than two days as they tortured, assaulted and stabbed to death. Her body, stuffed in a trash can, was discarded in a snow-covered parking lot.
Things seemed bad enough in December 2016 when county detectives charged Dennis Lee Kunkle Jr. with stealing $155,000 over years while serving as South Greensburg’s secretary. That was until this December, he was charged with stealing money from his father to repay the debt through court-ordered restitution.
Kunkle, 54, remains in jail after authorities said he lied during an October court hearing in which he pleaded guilty to stealing from the borough. As a condition of the guilty plea and probation sentence, Kunkle repaid the borough $101,000, which he told a judge he raised from cashing in his retirement fund.
Police now believe Kunkle wrote checks from his 77-year-old father’s accounts to make the restitution payment and for other purposes. Kunkle Jr. remains in jail on the new charges.
Greensburg mayor Robert Bell gives his remarks during a memorial for late Chief J. Edward “Hutch” Hutchinson on Sunday, April 22, 2018, at the Palace Theatre in Greensburg.
Photo by Jack Fordyce Speicher
Greensburg lost a stalwart of public service on April 15 with the death of Ed Hutchinson . The legendary figure joined Hose Company No. 3 in 1939 and took over as chief of the city fire department in 1953 – a position he held until retiring in 2016. In all, he served in the fire department of 78 of his 96 years of life. He was believed to be the longest-serving and oldest active fire chief in Pennsylvania and among the longest tenured in the nation.
Outside of fighting countless fires and saving lives, Hutch’s accomplishments also included establishing the Aerobic Center at Lynch Field, bringing an emergency medical helicopter to Greensburg, starting the fire department’s dive team and helping create the Westmoreland 911 system.
He also served on Excela Westmoreland Hospital’s board of directors. The parking garage at the Greensburg hospital bears his name.
Chris Orsoz , founding executive director emeritus of Stage Right Professional Theater Company and School for the Performing Arts in Greensburg, died July 4. The Irwin resident was a driving force behind the performing arts school that opened in 1998 with a dozen students and has grown to more than 200 students today.
She reportedly came up with Stage Right’s motto “Where Dreams Begin.”
Bud Smail , the long-serving and well-respected auto dealer owner, businessman and philanthropist, died Aug. 1. Smail started working at his family’s Jeannette car dealership in 1959 and before eventually expanding into a new showroom and lot along Route 30 in Hempfield.
Smail Auto Group grew to include 10 car franchises and more than 400 employees.
He served on the boards of the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, Westmoreland County Community College, the Westmoreland Cultural Trust, and the American Heart Association of Western Pennsylvania.
Charities associated with Smail and his business include Feherty’s Troops First Foundation, Magee-Women’s Research Institute & Foundation, Westmoreland Walks Inc., National Parkinson Foundation-Western Pennsylvania, JDRF-Walk to Cure Diabetes, Westmoreland Cultural Trust, the United Way and Westmoreland County Community College.
March for Our Lives events were held in Greensburg and Pittsburgh a month after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. About 200 people attended the rally outside the Westmoreland County Courthouse. One in Pittsburgh attracted an estimated 30,000 people.
A couple hundred students from Pittsburgh and the region also traveled to Washington D.C. for the national March for Our Lives rally organized by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students from Florida.