2004's top stories carry somber feelings

Editor's note: The Herald is looking back as the first decade of the millennium wraps up. This is the fourth of a 10-day series recounting the top local news stories of that decade.

The Mid-Columbia's biggest stories of 2004 had a decidedly somber turn with the murder of a beloved Benton City coach and the loss of hometown soldiers in the Middle East.

But there were more upbeat tales, including the rebuilding of the Playground of Dreams, real progress made in cleaning up Hanford, and signs of recovery in the beef industry from the prior year's hit of mad cow disease.

The Herald voted the top story of the year the shocking Labor Day weekend murder of Bob Mars, a pillar of the Tri-City sports community.

Mars, a 44-year-old Richland father and a longtime coach and sixth-grade teacher in the Kiona-Benton City School District, was stabbed to death late Sept. 4 at the district middle school.

Benton County prosecutors later said it was part of a gang initiation that earned a 14-year-old boy a fresh tattoo and a murder charge.

Jordan E. Castillo was charged with murder and attempted theft. Co-defendant Robert A. Suarez, 16, who allegedly encouraged Castillo, also was charged with murder.

Other top stories of 2004 included:

No. 2: Five Mid-Columbia soldiers died in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

They were: Army Staff Sgt. Robert A. Stever, 36, of Pendleton; Marine Lance Cpl. James Huston Jr., 22, of Hermiston; Marine Staff Sgt. Marvin Best, 33, of Prosser; National Guardsman Spc. Jeremiah Schmunk, 20, of Richland; and Army Spc. Blain Ebert, 22, of Washtucna.

No. 3: After years of delays, planning and preparation, the Umatilla Chemical Depot began destroying chemical weapons. The work continues today. In its first year, the $395 million incineration facility in Hermiston destroyed 2,273 chemical weapon rockets and almost 30,000 pounds of sarin.

The depot stored 220,604 munitions and containers filled with a total of 7.4 million pounds of deadly nerve and mustard agents.

No. 4: A year after a Holstein in Mabton tested positive for mad cow disease -- stranding bargeloads of beef at sea and causing beef to be taken off restaurant menus across the country -- those in the cattle industry continued to deal with the aftershocks. But new rules for food safety were in the works and beef prices were holding up.

No. 5: Hanford spent $2 billion to clean up contamination at the nuclear reservation and reported significant progress. Workers finished stabilizing 4.4 tons of plutonium left at the Plutonium Finishing Plant. They also finished a $1.4 billion project to move 2,300 tons of irradiated fuel from the leak-prone K Basins, and emptied all of the liquid from Hanford's massive underground single-shell tanks used to store highly radioactive waste.

No. 6: A doctors' and nurses' rebellion at Community Health Center La Clinica in Pasco led to the departure of Executive Director John Troidl. The turmoil potentially affected services for more than 29,000 clients and pitted many of the more than 300 employees against the 11-member board of directors of the private, nonprofit health clinic. Hundreds picketed the Pasco clinic, and clinic staff voted to unionize.

No. 7: The Washington State Supreme Court sent county prosecutors scurrying in November when it threw out the convictions of at least 280 murderers statewide. That meant Tri-City prosecutors had to hold new trials or renegotiate plea deals with six imprisoned killers after the court invalidated second-degree murder convictions based on assaults without a proven intent to kill.

No. 8: Voters approved Initiative 297, which called for no more waste being brought to Hanford until wastes already there were cleaned up. Benton and Franklin county voters were the only in the state to say no to the measure, which later was overturned.

No. 9: A year after an arsonist set fire to the popular Playground of Dreams in Kennewick, the community rallied to rebuild the park in four days in April. Volunteers raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to rebuild the playground, which they called the Phoenix Project. No one was arrested for the crime.

No. 10: A 17-year-old Kennewick boy killed two of his friends in May after losing control of his 1996 Chevy Camaro while driving more than 100 mph through a residential neighborhood. Thomas George was convicted of two counts of vehicular homicide for the accident, which killed Jason Damon, 16, and Daniel Griffith, 17. All three boys attended Kennewick High School.