Top stories of 2013

Here are the top 10 local news stories of 2013, as decided by Tribune readers.
Becky Vargo
Dec 31, 2013

1. Jessica Heeringa missing

The community rallied when a clerk disappeared from a Norton Shores gas station in April — but, seven months later, 26-year-old Jessica Heeringa remains missing. The saga of the young mother’s late-night abduction from the Exxon station at 1196 E. Sternberg Road, just west of U.S. 31, was selected by Grand Haven Tribune readers as the top local story of 2013.

Police believe the Norton Shores woman was preparing to close the gas station when she was abducted that night. A customer found the building empty when he entered it at about 11:15 p.m.

Family and friends established a volunteer command center in the shopping plaza next door. They manned it for weeks, handing out fliers, selling T-shirts and doing what they could to help find Heeringa.

Several law enforcement agencies worked together to follow thousands of leads coming in from tip lines and social media, but Heeringa has not surfaced. Norton Shores Police Chief Dan Shaw believes there’s someone out there who knows where she is, but is not talking.

Recent action:

Family and friends started a petition drive at change.org to get the case transferred to another agency with “a fresh set of eyes.” More than 3,700 signatures have been received. The petition page notes that 5,000 signatures are needed.

State Rep. Collene Lamonte, D-Montague, recently unveiled legislation that would require gas stations/convenience stores to install security cameras and to require at least two people working between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

2. GHHS girls basketball

Grand Haven's varsity girls basketball team has put together one of the best three-year runs in state history, capped off by the Buccaneers' second consecutive Class A state title this past March.

Grand Haven claimed its second straight championship with a 60-54 overtime win against Grosse Pointe South — the same team the Bucs beat for the title in 2012.

The finals win capped off a 28-0 regular season for Grand Haven. Over the past three years, the team has posted an incredible 81-2 record.

The Bucs reached the state finals for the second consecutive year thanks to a huge game by Abby Cole in the state semifinals. The 6-foot-5 Cole — who was named The Associated Press Class A Player of the Year — had 23 points, 19 rebounds and 12 blocked shots in a win over Westland John Glenn.

In the championship game, the Bucs got off to a fast start in their rematch with Grosse Pointe South, only to see South battle back and force overtime. Cole had four points in the extra session and Hannah Wilkerson scored a game-high 17 for Grand Haven.

3. Racial intimidation investigation

A series of race-related incidents at Grand Haven High School were the center of a federal investigation, which ended in the spring.

Prior to the conclusion of a U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigation into incidents of KKK-like apparel and racial slurs at the high school, the Grand Haven school district agreed to a resolution. The agreement outlines specific steps the district will take to resolve the situation now and appropriately handle situations in the future.
The district must pay for counseling through June 2014 for two students at the center of the incidents, keep those students separate from those who allegedly harassed them, provide additional staff supervision in areas where racial harassment allegedly took place, designate a district staff member responsible for handling other suspected incidents of harassment and coordinate other remedies.

The Office for Civil Rights will continue to monitor the school district. If the district fails to meet the outlined steps, the investigation will re-open and the agency will take appropriate action to ensure compliance.

4. Cross resurrected in Spring Lake

On Good Friday, community members celebrated the resurrection of the cross at Harvest Bible Chapel, Spring Lake.

The church at 225 E. Exchange St. was formerly the home of C3 Exchange, whose leaders had removed the 1,000-pound cross in 2010 to focus on their mission of spiritual inclusiveness. They eventually moved the congregation to the Grand Haven Community Center because of financial problems. C3's leader, Ian Lawton, moved back to Australia earlier this month.

Harvest Bible Chapel members remodeled the church and started worshipping there this spring.

5. Spring flooding

Although not at record levels, the Grand River in Robinson Township was still several feet above its flood stage in mid-April. This was enough for most residents of the lower elevations to evacuate their homes.

Two people stuck it out too long and had to call for rescue by emergency personnel on April 18. Firefighters helped Mary Palazzolo and Char Reed to a boat, which they used to travel up the road from Limberlost Lane to higher ground.

The river at Robinson Township crested at 17 feet, well above the 13.3 flood stage, and carried tons of debris downriver. Much of it washed onshore at Grand Haven State Park.

6. Government shutdown impact

The federal government shutdown this fall almost impacted local Head Start programs.

Child Development Services Lakeshore Head Start workers and parents were initially notified the program wouldn't open as of Oct. 9, and workers would be laid off because they couldn't access payroll funds. The program managed to get an "excepted list" of programs, so the funds were unfrozen and released Oct. 8. The program's doors remained open.

The sequester also had an impact on the region in 2013, especially when it came to the U.S. Coast Guard. The guard was forced to scale back some of its involvement in the Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival due to sequestration. The goal, Coast Guard officials said, was to focus more on operational activities such as search and rescue and ice breaking instead of "community engagement activities."

7. 'Coast Guard City USA' sign

A sign celebrating the U.S. Coast Guard and the Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival stirred up quite a controversy this year.

Grand Haven City Council made a decision in the summer that prohibited placing the "Coast Guard City USA" sign on Dewey Hill. Council members said they were concerned about the sign's placement, and how it might negatively impact Dewey Hill due to erosion and other factors.

An outpouring of support for the sign came in from the community. People chimed in at City Council meetings, the Tribune website and Opinion page, and Facebook. With all of this vocal support, City Council decided to reverse its decision and allow the sign to be placed on the hill for the 2013 festival.

8. Holiday Road dead-ended

Holiday Road organizer Brad Boyink was shut out in his attempts to stage his annual choreographed music and light show at Ferrysburg's Coast Guard Park and on a Grand Haven one-way street.

Boyink bumped into resistance in Ferrysburg last summer from Councilwoman Regina Sjoberg and withdrew his request there. He then approached Grand Haven City Council with plans for Franklin Avenue, but that was voted down because of potential effects on downtown businesses.

Boyink said he has retired the show, which was a benefit for Special Olympics, for good.

9. Spring Lake fall sports

This past fall's sports season was perhaps the most dominant in the history of Spring Lake High School athletics.

The Lakers' girls cross country team placed second in the state, as did the boys' soccer team, which lost to East Lansing in the state championship game. Spring Lake's girls golfers placed third in the state, while the boys' tennis squad was fifth.

The Lakers' varsity football team won an outright league championship and earned a home playoff game. The volleyball squad won its first district championship since 1996, set a school record for wins with 44, and won the first regional tournament game in program history.

10. Bodies found

The first of four bodies found in the Grand Haven area floated downstream in the Grand River floodwaters and was discovered behind Grand Valley Marina on April 18.

Trevor James O’Brien, 28, was reported missing to Grand Rapids police on Feb. 3. Foul play was not suspected and it was not known where O’Brien went into the river.

A 47-year-old Walker man drowned in Lake Michigan on June 30 when he jumped off a boat in the North Shore area to go for a swim. The paramedic’s friends kept vigil for days as the search continued for John English’s body. An Ottawa County Sheriff’s deputy walking the beach near P.J. Hoffmaster State Park discovered English’s body in the water on July 20.

On Nov. 18, relatives found the body of a 54-year-old man in a wooded area in the 5300 block of Quarterline Road of Fruitport Township. Family members said the man had been staying in the area in a tent. Police did not reveal the man’s identity and said foul play was not suspected.

A Byron Center man died when he fell or was washed off Grand Haven's south pier into Lake Michigan on Nov. 26, said the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety. Gary Huynh’s body was found by someone walking the beach that morning. Police found the man’s fishing gear on the pier. They said foul play was not a factor in the man’s death.

Tribune reporters Matt DeYoung, Alex Doty, Marie Havenga and Krystle Wagner contributed to this report.

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