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Gazette picks top local stories of 2020


In a year of amazingly dismal and shocking news headlines, of stories that often hinged on the vagaries, tragedies and complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the one thread that shot through it all has been politics.

And politics is what President Donald Trump brought here during his failed quest to hold on to the White House.

Some Rock County residents might—or might not—have been surprised in October, when Trump shook off the shackles of his bout with COVID-19 to continue his barnstorming re-election tour.

Alex Brandon via AP 

President Donald Trump speaks during an Oct. 17 campaign rally at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville.

His stop in Janesville is The Gazette’s top story of the year.

When Trump touched down at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport for a late-evening rally Oct. 17, it was deep in the campaign season.

His visit occurred during a spike in COVID-19 cases that hit Rock County so hard that some county officials urged the president to reconsider a visit that would draw thousands of people.

Trump had scuttled his Oct. 3 trip to Janesville after he contracted COVID-19 and was briefly hospitalized.

But neither the pandemic’s rampage through Wisconsin nor his own illness stopped the president, and droves of his followers turned out on a blustery Saturday hours before he was to arrive at the airport.

The visit was a part of a high-stakes bid to secure Wisconsin, a battleground state, and it was Trump’s second visit to Janesville after a stop here during his 2016 run for the White House.

Rally organizers estimated attendance at 8,000 to 13,000, depending on whether you counted the overflow crowd that wasn’t allowed through the gates. Some local Trump supporters who attended the rally attacked those estimates on social media, suggesting that local media intentionally underestimated a crowd some believed was at least 15,000—if not 20,000.

2. Former Badgers football player charged in Janesville double murder.

Anthony Wahl 

An emotional Kiara McAdory, 18, secures a vase of flowers in the snow next to a roadside memorial for her cousin Brittany N. McAdory, 27, and Seairaha J. Winchester, 30, who were shot and killed Feb. 10 in Janesville.

About 10 months after he was charged with murdering two women in Janesville, Marcus T. Randle El finally made his initial appearance this month in Rock County Court in a homicide case that shook the community.

After he finished serving prison time in Illinois, Randle El, a former UW-Madison football player, was brought to the Rock County Jail and ordered held on a $2 million cash bond in connection with the slayings of Seairaha J. Winchester and Brittany N. McAdory on Feb. 10 on Midvale Drive.

Randle El’s lawyer said his client should get credit for turning himself in five days after the murders.

A prosecutor recently called the killings “execution style,” adding that they were done for “little or no reason.”

3. George Floyd’s murder sparks protests, policy reviews.

After the May murder of George Floyd, the Black Minneapolis man who died after former police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck, local police officials decried the “crime” and “murderous actions.”

Protests about racial injustice and the criminal justice system ensued throughout Rock County. One man brought what he called “riot control bees” to one peaceful protest at Janesville’s main post office.

Floyd’s death also prompted further scrutiny of police policy in Rock County. Janesville police updated their policies on chokeholds, blows to the neck and use of force. Rock County sheriff’s deputies are going to get body cameras.

But four of five Janesville police officers didn’t have their body cameras turned on during a nonfatal shooting in March, and the fifth officer’s footage did not fully show the shooting itself.

And in October, a Janesville police officer took a teenage girl to the ground after she pushed another person. The girl suffered a broken rib and slightly punctured lung.

4. Body of 9-year-old Madison Billups found in Rock River.

Anthony Wahl 

Officials search for 9-year-old Madison Billups in the Rock River below the Monterey Bridge in Janesville. Billups’ body was found in the river June 29.

It took authorities four days in a tense, risky and exhaustive water search to find the body of 9-year-old Madison Billups, who authorities believe slipped off a sandbar in the Rock River and was swept underwater just west of the Monterey Bridge on June 25.

At Anglers Park, where the girl disappeared, Billups’ family held a 24-hour vigil that was at various times hopeful, angry and poignant as the river swirled past a part of the park that the city has cultivated as a family fishing area.

A kayaker eventually spotted the girl’s body in the shallows, about a mile downstream from where she had disappeared. The same day, a few hundred residents and family members gathered along the river where Billups was last seen.

One family member told The Gazette the young girl had been “a firecracker and a little peanut.”

Months later, the family began to seek financial compensation for Madison’s death. The city reviewed river safety along the Anglers Park riverfront. So far, local officials’ main response to the drowning appears to be a single metal sign placed near the spot where Billups was swept away warning of dangerous waters around the park.

5. Janesville voters approve both school referendums.

The Janesville School District received public support in the Nov. 3 election in the form of two approved referendum questions.

Voters approved both a $22.5 million capital referendum and a $37 million operational referendum.

The money from the operational referendum will be used to counter a decline in enrollment, which carries an accompanying decline in state funding.

The $37 million referendum will be used to maintain programming and pay salaries and other daily expenses.

6. Presidential election spurs historic voter turnout and record-shattering numbers of absentee votes.

Anthony Wahl 

Poll workers process absentee ballots inside St. Patrick School in Janesville on Nov. 3.

The coronavirus pandemic made many people question how and why they vote, which added pressure to an already much-anticipated presidential contest between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

Voting districts and wards nationwide saw massive numbers of absentee voters who voted early in person or by mail, and Rock County was no exception.

Overall turnout was high Nov. 3 regardless of the voting method.

A total of 85,617 people voted in Rock County, surpassing the previous record of 81,509 set in 2012. About 70% of the county’s eligible voters voted.

In Janesville, more than 22,500 city residents sent in absentee ballots or voted in-person absentee before the election. Countywide, nearly 50,000 voted absentee. Both figures smashed records.

Concerns were raised about the integrity of mail-in voting, but analyses during and before the election showed no evidence of widespread fraud, although Trump continues to challenge that.

Biden won Rock County with 54.7% of the vote to 43.5% for the president. Biden was declared the winner days after Election Day because of delayed counts in many states caused by the crush of absentee ballots.

Concerns about late ballot counting sparked false conspiracy claims. Trump requested recounts in a few Wisconsin counties, but not Rock County.

7. Gazette downsized: Saturday and Sunday papers disappear.

After 32 years of delivering seven editions a week, The Gazette reduced its production to five days a week, effective June 1.

The decision to reduce the number of editions was designed to counter a decline in advertising and subscriber revenue.

Weekend newspapers tended to be the most costly for Adams Publishing Group, said Mary Jo Villa, former publisher and regional president.

Six employees also were laid off as part of the move.

8. Blackhawk Community Credit Union withdraws plans for “Legacy Center.”

Anthony Wahl 

The former First National Bank building in downtown Janesville that Blackhawk Community Credit Union once intended to redevelop as a General Motors Legacy Center.

Under the leadership of former CEO Sherri Stumpf, Blackhawk Community Credit Union had become a strident and ambitious voice in the effort to revitalize downtown Janesville’s riverfront area.

In 2019, Stumpf and her credit union bought the vacant former First National Bank at 100 W. Milwaukee St. in the heart of downtown and launched major renovations to return the bank to its original 1913 grandeur. Plans also called for a “Legacy Center,” a museum to honor the history of union autoworkers at the now-demolished General Motors plant in Janesville.

But amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden—and mostly unexplained—departure of Stumpf as CEO, the credit union shifted its priorities and pulled the plug on museum plans at the former bank and a companion project to build a new headquarters on the city’s west side.

The credit union left the building with its interior and exterior in disarray for months. Silent donors involved in Forward Janesville’s charitable arm, the Forward Foundation, bought the bank in September and since then have temporarily shored up its exterior.

The Forward Foundation now is examining prospects to preserve and reuse the old bank, including a plan to turn it into a children’s museum.

9. Murals, pedestrian bridge add artistic touches as downtown Janesville continues transformation.

Anthony Wahl 

Jaime Brown and Karim Jabbari work on Brown’s mural design on the back of the old post office, 201 Dodge St., in downtown Janesville in this September 2020 photo.

In a year full of delays, cancellations and postponements, a much-anticipated and long-planned downtown project was completed, giving residents a new outdoor space to enjoy for the last couple of warm weeks of the year.

The Blain Gilbertson Family Heritage Pedestrian Bridge was completed in fall along with the east-side town square downtown—both part of the overall ARISE vision for downtown rehabilitation.

Adding to the downtown mix, boosters hired several local and national artists to paint a series of murals throughout the downtown, a trend that has become popular in downtown projects across the country.

10. Gazette exposes racial disparities in school arrests.

In the months after a Gazette analysis of racial disparities in how kids are policed in Janesville, Rock County officials continued their efforts to address the issue in the youth criminal justice system.

The Gazette published a story in June using police and school data to show that Black students at Janesville public schools were cited, arrested and referred to juvenile authorities at a rate that was more than seven times higher than that for other races.

County data shared during an October meeting showed that even though youth arrests have fallen substantially over the last decade in Rock County, racial disparities for Black youth persisted.

Local officials are working to pilot a diversion program at a middle school, with hopes of connecting children sooner with services that are outside the criminal justice system.

Obituaries and death notices for Dec. 31, 2020

Mina L. DeVoe

Mark D. Gullickson

Willis Eugene “Gene” Haseman

Michael S. Hebble

Richard D. Heller

Naomi Virginia Miller

Carol Ann Paterick

Dana A. (Riese) Paterson

Marilyn B. Pfammatter

Helen Louise (Adkins) Ploegert

Michael J. Roherty

Allegra Rothkopf

Elinor Y. Swain

Kenneth R. Viken

Albert J.B. “Ben” Wille II

Harriett Vicki (Peterson) Wilson

Shut-down orders chosen as top local COVID-19 story of 2020

Following the lead of government officials nationwide, Gov. Tony Evers issued a statewide safer-at-home order March 25, effectively shutting down all “nonessential” in-person services and gatherings.

It was early in the pandemic, and public health officials believed the order was the best initial action to take to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.

The order was short-lived. The state Supreme Court on May 13 struck it down in a 4-3 decision after Republican state lawmakers challenged it in the courts, asserting that the order was an overreach by Evers and health department Secretary-designee Andrea Palm.

Rock County officials issued a new countywide safer-at-home order late in the evening after the court decision. However, the county lifted its order one week later, and officials said they were optimistic people would abide by recommended but unenforceable guidelines to keep the community safe.

Gazette picks top local stories of 2020

From the president's visit to Janesville late in the election season to murder and school referendums, here are The Gazette's picks for top stories of the year outside of COVID-19.

The statewide shutdown and recommended safety guidelines disrupted local, state and national economies and continue to cause ripple effects.

Since March, many people have blamed inconsistent guidelines and standards across the state for significant increases in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths this fall and winter.

Here are the other COVID-19 stories that made The Gazette’s top five of 2020:

2. Birds Eye plant has one of the largest known local outbreaks.

Anthony Wahl 

The Birds Eye vegetable-processing facility in the town of Darien was forced to suspend operations in spring after a spate of positive coronavirus tests among workers became public knowledge.

It took an employee from the Birds Eye food-processing plant in Darien, speaking on condition of anonymity with The Gazette in April, for Walworth County’s health department to first learn about a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.

Local public health officials considered it one of the largest known outbreaks in the area.

A spokesman for Birds Eye released a statement late one Saturday night, saying the company would suspend operations for several days in most parts of the facility.

That came a few hours after The Gazette published a story about the outbreak that detailed an employee’s concerns about safety at the facility—especially for the many seasonal workers there.

3. Schools switch back and forth on virtual learning.

Anthony Wahl 

Students leave Craig High School at the end of the school day last September. Craig is among district schools that had to pivot between virtual and classroom learning because of COVID-19.

Area schools faced the tall order of finding the best way to educate students while keeping them and staff safe from the virus.

The governor’s safer-at-home order forced schools to close last spring, moving students and teachers to virtual learning.

Some students found that the solution worked just fine for them, but others struggled. When schools reopened in fall, the Janesville School District offered three educational models: in-person, virtual or blended.

The local teachers union disagreed with the plan, asking for a virtual start to the school year. The district now is teaching a record number of students at ARISE Virtual Academy, its virtual school, as a result.

Multiple school buildings have had to close temporarily because of the virus, and both the Milton and Janesville school districts decided to pivot to virtual learning through winter break to ease some of the stress from the virus.

Janesville elementary students continue to learn in person.

4. Rock County Jail endures COVID-19 outbreak.

Submitted photo 

Tyrone Gibson Jr. and Maleesha Jackson place their hands on the screen as they were married over video at the Rock County Jail in mid-December. Gibson is confined at the Rock County Jail with COVID-19.

COVID-19 spread rapidly through the Rock County Jail this month, eventually touching about half of the inmate population, leaving those inside and loved ones on the outside deeply worried.

Jails and prisons across the country have been some of the most vulnerable places to COVID-19 outbreaks, but the Rock County Jail did not have a reported outbreak until December.

Inmates and their loved ones have spoken out about their concerns. They know jail is not supposed to be a vacation, but they worry that the conditions are not humane enough and that their concerns haven’t been adequately heard.

Jail officials have said that no one has required sustained treatment at a hospital. Three inmates have been taken to a hospital to be evaluated but have returned to the jail.

Those officials have spoken highly of their cleaning and isolation processes.

5. ‘COVID fatigue’ sets in just as pandemic worsens.

“We’re all in this together” is a nice enough tagline—a mantra that was easy for Americans, Rock County residents included, to repeat and believe early on as COVID-19 began to sweep the country

But the reality of the pandemic—the fact that it was shaping up to derail commerce and complicate life for months longer than estimated—began to unravel the nationalistic idea of collective sacrifice.

Simply put, some people got tired of the constraints of COVID-19, even as more and more people got sick and died from the disease.

Local health officials in early fall saw that trend settling in: so-called “COVID fatigue.”

The problem, health experts believed—and still do believe—is that such fatigue could become a major driver in continued spikes in the disease as more people eschew social-distancing measures in favor of living their lives as they did before the pandemic.

Case in point: the holidays. Pandemic fatigue and its close cousin, “I just want to be with everybody on Christmas no matter what,” were major factors in some school officials’ decisions to close down in-person learning between November and January.

We’re still waiting to learn when classroom learning might be back in session in 2021.

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More opioid overdoses reported in Janesville in 2020; fatalities level with 2019


There were more nonfatal opioid overdoses in Janesville in 2020 than any year since 2015, but the number of fatalities remained level with 2019, according to police department data shared Wednesday.

Janesville officer Chad Woodman, who is the department’s DROP (death, recovery or prison) program officer, told The Gazette that he saw “heightened levels” of overdoses between the middle of March and the middle of June—the first few months that COVID-19 hit the area.

He said the department as of Wednesday tallied 52 nonfatal opioid overdoses in 2020 and nine fatal ones. Those numbers could change with the limited time left in the year or if Woodman learns of any others the department’s detectives are investigating.

Those figures come after 2019 saw 39 nonfatal overdoses and nine fatalities, which was a decrease from the three years before. There were 12 deaths in 2016 and 14 deaths in each of 2017 and 2018, according to the police data.

Woodman said he thinks the work of the department along with other area groups and nonprofits to give those with substance-use addictions the overdose-reversing drug naloxone is saving lives.

The previous high for nonfatal overdoses in the city since 2015 was in 2017, which accounted for 48.

It is difficult to determine exactly why there were more reported overdoses in 2020, but Woodman thinks how hard the pandemic affected everyone’s life could be part of the explanation.

More seclusion from support systems because of the pandemic could compound other mental health matters such as depression and anxiety, he said. The support systems can help those with addictions know they’re not alone.

He said he wants to connect those in need with the services that can help them rather than make an arrest that won’t solve the underlying addiction problems.

But some of the metrics he usually works with to help people with addiction have been, at least at times, unavailable during the pandemic.

In the spring, Woodman said he paused his visits to the hospital to meet directly with someone who had overdosed. Catching them closer to the incident might make them more receptive to treatment options.

Eventually, he said the department decided it was worth it for him to keep making the visits as long as he followed the personal protective equipment requirements of both the department and the hospitals.

Still, in other years he would utilize peer support members or recovery coaches to help those with addiction. But he said he had to weigh those benefits with not putting others in harm’s way because of the virus.

“This year has been really difficult for us,” he said. “It’s been difficult for everybody.”

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'Use it or lose it': Some Janesville police officers receive COVID-19 vaccinations


Storing and distribution requirements for COVID-19 vaccines have prompted Mercyhealth to reach out to its community partners, including police officers, to give them the vaccines before they expire, an official said Wednesday.

That led to 56 sworn Janesville police officers receiving their first vaccine doses Monday night, said Deputy Chief Terry Sheridan.

Recommendations for vaccine distribution have prioritized health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, with emergency personnel—including police—being next in line.

Mercyhealth had intended to vaccinate only health care workers with its first shipment of vaccines, but storage and expiration requirements pushed some other Rock County officials ahead in line, Don Janczak, Mercyhealth’s director of pharmacy, said in an email to The Gazette.

“The vaccine is very delicate and has nontraditional storage and expiration requirements,” Janczak said. “This forces us to ‘use it or lose it’ within a short time frame. We are also adhering to the goal of zero waste.”

Mercyhealth is not alone. Many states are improvising new delivery systems and rewriting vaccination priorities as they and health institutions struggle with the logistics of keeping the shots cold and organizing groups of people to receive them.

The vaccine created by Pfizer requires extremely cold storage and must be used quickly once thawed. That is the only kind of vaccine Mercyhealth has received so far.

“Our initial goal was to not include first responders. At the end of the day, when we had the vaccine prepared, it was appropriate to reach out to first responders,” Janczak said.

Janesville Deputy Fire Chief Jim Ponkauskas said last week that the fire department had assembled a list of people who wanted the vaccine and contact information for those people, making it easy to get them vaccinated when Mercyhealth called and said vaccines were available.

Sheridan said the police department got a call about available vaccine doses Monday, but those in the department who wanted them needed to get to the hospital on a first-come, first-served basis.

He said police officials knew that calls such as the one Monday would come and require a quick response. He said about 40 more employees have said they want to get the vaccine, but he did not know when that would happen for them.

Sheridan got the vaccine, as well. He said the process was “pretty seamless” and that he didn’t have any problems.

Those who got their vaccinations will have to get the second dose in a few weeks, he said.

“We’re all looking forward to hopefully getting back to normal again,” Sheridan said. “This seems like this is the beginning, hopefully, the beginning of the end of it (the pandemic).”

Some emergency medical services workers were vaccinated last week.

Health care workers work closely with first responders, who provide direct care to the community, Janczak said.

When asked if Mercyhealth vaccinated all of its health care workers before vaccinating police officers, Janczak said:

“We have a phased approach beginning with frontline workers who care for COVID-19 patients. Because we need to use the vaccine within a certain period of time, we opened vaccination up to all of our employees/partners and first responders at the end of our final day of the first round of vaccinations.”

The Gazette sent questions to Mercyhealth asking specifically about police officer vaccinations, but the responses given focused on all first responders, including EMS workers, and did not specifically address the police, who typically do not provide medical care.

Mercyhealth uses these Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for vaccine eligibility in Phase 1A: “individuals who provide direct patient service (compensated and uncompensated) or engage in health care services that place them into contact with patients who are able to transmit SARS-CoV-2, and/or infectious material containing SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

Mercyhealth has received one shipment of Pfizer vaccine so far. State plans show Mercyhealth should receive the vaccine on a weekly basis, Janczak said.

He said Mercyhealth has administered 1,414 doses of vaccine in Rock County.

Plans for vaccine distribution moving forward are somewhat fuzzy nationwide, and the state has not publicly disclosed specifics about where and when people from other priority groups will be vaccinated.

Janczak said Mercyhealth will follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding when to vaccinate other priority groups.

“Our first priority is to focus on frontline health care employees/partners,” Janczak said. “The Rock County Health Department, Mercyhealth and the other county health systems are working together on a plan for distribution to the general public.”