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2017 Year in Review: Tampa Bay Times editors pick top stories of the year

Shortly after 2017 began, a new president was sworn in and hardly a day went by without some new dustup (#FakeNews, Russian hacking, health care, to name a few). Nature wasn’t calm either, with devastating hurricanes slamming Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico, and wildfires blazing across much of California. The phrase "deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history" was used again for the second year in a row, this time for the massacre in Las Vegas. Closer to home, a serial killer kept a Tampa Bay neighborhood on edge for more than 50 days. Tampa Bay Times editors have chosen these 10 stories, unranked, as the biggest news stories of the year from the pages of the Times and its website, tampabay.com.

TRUMP’S FIRST YEAR

The controversies started with the size of the inauguration day crowd and never abated. The Donald Trump administration’s first year has been as fast-paced and news-filled as veteran Washington watchers can remember. There was the stylistic —- criticizing NFL players for kneeling during the National Anthem and mocking the North Korean leader as "Rocket Man." And there was the substantive — appointing Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, getting a major tax overhaul bill through Congress (with the repeal of the Obamacare individual mandate tucked in) and continued dismantling of government regulations. It has not been boring.

HURRICANES WREAK HAVOC

First it was to hit Homestead. Then it took aim at Tampa Bay. Floridians watched for days as Hurricane Irma, once a Category 5 with wind speeds of 185 mph, swayed back and forth. As it zeroed in, state and local officials told more than 6 million people to get out of the way, creating one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history. After clipping Cuba, a weakened Irma rolled the southern keys and made landfall in Marco Island on Sept. 10. It marched up the state, passing Tampa Bay to the east, largely sparing it from major damage. Its legacy here: thousands of downed trees and a historic power outage.

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Weeks earlier, Hurricane Harvey dumped record rainfall on Houston, killing at least 75 people and causing up to $200 billion in damage, which would make it the costliest hurricane ever. As a third act, Hurricane Maria laid waste to Puerto Rico, rendering much of the U.S. territory uninhabitable and leaving many of its 3.7 million residents homeless. More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have already fled to Florida. Many of those who stayed on the island are still without power or potable water.

SEXUAL MISCONDUCT

Scandals involving sexual misdeeds by prominent men are nothing new in America, but there has never been anything remotely like the deluge of allegations unleashed this year. The year began with hundreds of thousands of women marching together on the day after President Trump was inaugurated. Women were emboldened to speak out, in part, by the use of the #MeToo hashtag. The #MeToo movement created such a wave of awareness that it was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Luminaries toppled from their perches included movie magnate Harvey Weinstein, media stars Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, and several celebrity chefs and members of Congress.

SEMINOLE HEIGHTS KILLINGS

A serial killer kept Seminole Heights on edge for 51 days until a bizarre turn led to the arrest of a 24-year-old college graduate. The neighborhood was shaken when Benjamin Mitchell, 22, was fatally shot on Oct. 9 at a HART bus stop just steps away from his home. But panic crept in when three others — Monica Hoffa, 32, Anthony Naiboa, 20, and Ronald Felton, 60 — were killed within a half-mile, all by the same weapon.

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Grainy footage of a hoodie-clad suspect casually flipping his cell phone went viral, as did Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s scathing command to police: "Bring me his head on a platter." The reward grew to $110,000. Police arrested Howell "Trai" Donaldson III after they say he placed the murder weapon in a bag and asked his manager at an Ybor City McDonald’s to hold it for him while he went to Amscot. Donaldson admitted the gun was his, but neither he nor his parents have yet to give investigators any explanations, authorities said. His parents now risk jail time for refusing to answer a subpoena that compels them to testify. Donaldson has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and could receive the death penalty.

CHARLOTTESVILLE VIOLENCE

Debates about Confederate flags and monuments have been going on in Southern states for several years. A fight over one city’s decision to remove a statue turned deadly in August. Charlottesville, Va., became a focal point of the resurgent white supremacist movement after city officials’ voted to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee from a city park. On Aug. 12, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, chanting "blood and soil!" and "white lives matter!" Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old Charlottesville paralegal, died when a car slammed into marchers who were demonstrating against the "Unite the Right" rally. Several other people were injured. James Alex Fields Jr., the man who prosecutors say drove the Challenger, has been charged with first-degree murder and is awaiting trial. By the end of the year, more than 25 cities across the United States, including Tampa and St. Petersburg, had removed or relocated Confederate statues and monuments.

JUVENILE CAR THEFT EPIDEMIC

Teens who steal cars have created a public safety crisis in Pinellas County that has claimed eight young lives in two years, including three boys who died in Palm Harbor in August when they crashed a stolen Ford Explorer at more than 100 mph. The Times chronicled the auto theft epidemic in 2017 in the series "Hot Wheels," which showed how children here crashed stolen cars once every four days, severely injuring themselves and others. Police arrested more teens for stealing cars in Pinellas than any other county in Florida and more than most places nationwide. The kids typically take vehicles that owners leave unlocked, with keys inside, a remarkably simple crime that critics say carries few consequences under the state juvenile justice system. Young thieves told reporters they don’t fear arrests and are bored, taking cars for a thrill, just to go fast and impress their friends. Since the series ran, state and local leaders have taken steps toward reform — altering laws to make it easier to detain the most chronic car thieves while restructuring programs and pledging to boost community services for juvenile offenders, many of whom come from broken homes.

LAS VEGAS SHOOTING

On Oct. 1, thousands of people were spread out across a fairground in Las Vegas, enjoying a country music performance as part of the Route 91 Harvest festival. High above them, a man with high-powered assault weapons was watching from a window of the Mandalay Bay hotel. Then he opened fire. Fifty-eight people would die and more than 500 would be injured in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The shooter apparently took his own life; his motive remains a mystery. A little more than a month later, another gunman with an AR-15-style rifle marched through the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs and mowed down everyone he saw. He killed 26 people and wounded about 20 others. He died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound after he was shot and chased by two men who heard the gunfire at the church.

TRUMP FBI INVESTIGATION

In May, President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey, citing his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and set into motion a series of events that led to the appointment of Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller to lead a federal investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. So far, the inquiry has produced indictments of Trump’s former campaign chairman and associates, and a guilty plea of lying to the FBI by his former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Rumors fly almost daily as to whether trump will fire Mueller before the investigation is complete.

NORTH KOREA

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continued his nation’s efforts to advance its nuclear program in spite of economic sanctions from the United Nations and warnings from the United States. After a prolonged war of words with President Donald Trump that included barbs like "madman," "mentally deranged U.S. dotard," "sick puppy" and "little rocket man," North Korea in November launched its most powerful rocket yet — one the nation says can strike the entire U.S. mainland. While U.S. officials send mixed messages about diplomatic options, Defense Secretary James Mattis recently told U.S. soldiers that the military must be ready for war.

TERROR ATTACKS

Iraq declared victory against the Islamic State in December after three years of war. Meanwhile, the United States has taken a toll on the extremists with thousands of airstrikes in Syria. But the efforts to eradicate the militants have not stopped them from continuing to influence attacks around the world. From the concert bombing in Manchester, England, that killed more than 20 people, to vehicle attacks in Barcelona, London and New York that caused numerous fatalities, the extremists have adapted to the times. Instead of planning bigger attacks that take time for training and communication, the group is urging followers to do what they can wherever they live to bring terror.

Times staff writers Josh Solomon, Anastasia Dawson and Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report, which also includes information from the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times and New York Times.

     
         
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