Archive for Thursday, December 28, 2006

Baldwin City flooded with news during ‘06

December 28, 2006

First murder in Baldwin City in decades. School district finds $300,000 deficit. Changing of the education leadership guard. There was an abundance of not only news, but also big news in the community in 2006.

Because of that, there won't be an annual Top Ten News Stories of the Year feature, which is annually done in the Signal. It's impossible to rank the stories, much less pare down the list to less than 20. Even a Top 25 would miss something.

But, the Signal does offer a recap of a wild news year with a review of the major stories, some of them combined, along with the Signal's annual year-in-review listing of headlines from the year. The headlines are throughout this week's issue.

The top story would easily be the murder, except it involved two Johnson County men. That helps bring the school district's $300,000 overspending discovered this summer right up with it because it affected everyone in Baldwin City -- students, teachers, administrators, parents, patrons and, of course, taxpayers. Readers can determine which is No. 1.

Of course, there's also the changing of the educational guard that occurred this year. Long-time Baker University President Dan Lambert retired after 19 years at the helm and was replaced by Patricia Long, the first woman president in the nearly 150 years of history of the college. She took over in July.

Also taking over in July was Paul Dorathy as superintendent of the Baldwin School District, replacing the retired James White. Dorathy's honeymoon didn't last long, however, after he discovered problems with the books that brought a thorough audit and found the $300,000 shortfall in mid August. Dorathy quickly went to work to solve the problem and the district is surviving.

Still, the March 4 shooting in Baldwin was the real headline grabber and brought countless television news crews to town. Hinndley Espinales, 25, Gardner, shot his brother-in-law, Alvin M. Sanchez, 27, Olathe, in the head with a 9mm handgun. The two Johnson County men were in Baldwin that Friday night for the birthday party of Espinales' father, Rufino Espinales, who lives in Baldwin.

Espinales fled the scene after the 2:15 a.m. shooting and was captured the next day in southern Oklahoma along Intersate 35. He was brought back to Kansas to face murder charges. A Douglas County District Court jury found Espinales guilty of second-degree murder in late October. Just this month, he was sentenced to 155 months (12 years) in prison by District Court Judge Jack Murphy.

It was the first murder here since Jan. 21, 1936, when a fire killed two elderly women. It was later determined to be arson. Eldon Kline, the son-in-law of one of the victims, was convicted.

In normal years, the news from the Baldwin Junction -- the intersection of U.S. highways 59 and 56 -- probably would have topped the list. Three people were killed in two separate accidents at the Junction, one an elderly Baldwin woman and two young Spring Hill women. They were the latest in a long line of victims at the intersection.

As a result, in early August the Kansas Department of Transportation decided to install a four-way stop at the Junction. In the past, only east and westbound traffic on U.S. 56 stopped at the Junction. Now, north and southbound U.S. 59 stops. Since the signs, rumble strips and other warning devices were installed, there has been only one accident and it involved a vehicle stopped at the U.S. 59 stop sign being rear-ended by another.

Baldwin High School again grabbed a lot of headlines last year during the tenure of former administrators. First, there was the hiring of a convicted felon as head custodian at BHS. That was eventually overturned by the school board. There was an assault in the BHS cafeteria and other problems. A few months later, the school board voted 6-1 for non-renewal of long-time BHS principal Allen Poplin's contract. In the fall, there was an investigation into the use of illegally obtained prescription drugs used by BHS students. Charges have still not been filed in that case.

Baldwin City also got a wake-up call when a simple candle fire turned into a blaze that destroyed the home of Bill and Jane Stotts Feb. 13 at 818 Indiana. What would have been a routine fire call turned into disaster when the Lawrence 911 dispatcher notified Lawrence fire fighters that the fire was there. When they arrived at 818 Indiana in Lawrence, there was no fire. Baldwin fire fighters were notified immediately, but the fire had already spread. Complicating the problems were a fire hydrant in the yard that failed and a lack of volunteer fire fighters to respond. The fire happened midday, when most volunteers are out of town at work.

Ironically, the Signal had run a story the week before about how retirements and other factors had reduced the fire department's stable of volunteers, most notably those available during the day. If there was good news from the fire, it was that more volunteers signed up, questionable hydrants around the city were checked and the problem with the 911 call was identified and fixed.

No, it wasn't all bad news in Baldwin City in 2006. Besides Long and Dorathy being hired to lead educational efforts in the community, there was other good news. Topping that list was how the community rallied for two big efforts.

The first was Fourth of July. Because of a lack of help, the Friends of Baldwin City canceled the annual fireworks display. After the Signal ran a story, help flooded in and the celebration was saved. The other rally involved a fundraising chili feed to help the family of Sherrie Wood with expenses from her long battle with cancer. More than $10,000 was raised. Sadly, Wood died about a week later.

Of course, another story that would have topped ordinary lists was the effort before, during and after the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Black Jack, where the first armed skirmish of what led to the Civil War occurred east of Baldwin on June 2, 1856. Volunteers spruced up the area for a well-attended celebration and that work continues as the area heads for a place in the National Park System.

Other good news stories of the year included the city and school board finally coming to an agreement on the School Resource Officer position after years of animosity regarding it. There were also improvements made at the Baldwin City Municipal Pool to solve long-standing parking problems and currently city crews are installing $56,000 worth of new playground equipment at the park near the pool.

And, possibly one of the biggest news events of the year was one that actually didn't take place. The $1.2 million renovation of downtown Baldwin City was delayed a year after there was only one bid for the project. That project should occur in 2007.

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