Police shooting in Pasco is top story of year

Sophia Murillo of Kennewick, left, and Frank Carr of Sequim are overcome with curiosity and wade into the Columbia River to check out an estimated seven-foot long dead sturgeon at the east end of Pasco’s Wade Park near Road 39. More than 80 sturgeon and an estimated 1.5 million fish died at hatcheries during this year’s record-high temperatures. The record heat and ensuing drought are among the top stories of 2015.
Sophia Murillo of Kennewick, left, and Frank Carr of Sequim are overcome with curiosity and wade into the Columbia River to check out an estimated seven-foot long dead sturgeon at the east end of Pasco’s Wade Park near Road 39. More than 80 sturgeon and an estimated 1.5 million fish died at hatcheries during this year’s record-high temperatures. The record heat and ensuing drought are among the top stories of 2015. Tri-City Herald file

1. Antonio Zambrano-Montes was shot at 17 times by three Pasco police officers, sparking international controversy that led to protests in the Tri-Cities for months.

Zambrano-Montes, 35, threw rocks at police at the intersection of Lewis Street and 10th Avenue. Officers Ryan Flanagan, Adam Wright and Adrian Alaniz shot at Zambrano-Montes before chasing him across the street.

Zambrano-Montes, who was high on methamphetamine, was then shot to death in front of a bakery on Lewis Street.

The shooting was captured on cellphone video and spread quickly the nation. Many argued that the officers used excessive force in killing Zambrano-Montes, who was not armed with a gun or knife, though a large rock was found near his body.

National media descended on the Tri-Cities and the story was covered in Mexico.

The officers were eventually cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant. Pasco police Chief Bob Metzger also cleared the officers following an internal review.

The U.S. Department of Justice stepped in after the shooting to provide training to the department and improve community relations in Pasco.

2. Upheaval in the Pasco School District

It was a difficult year for the Pasco School District, with the search for a new superintendent leading to transparency questions, a teachers strike disrupting the start of the school year and the ouster of the school board president.

Superintendent Saundra Hill announced in February her plan to retire on June 30, 2016. District administrator Michelle Whitney was awarded the job within two months of Hill’s announcement, beating out candidates from around Washington and the country.

Teachers and parents were critical of the process, saying it wasn’t conducted in the open and with enough public feedback. The state Attorney General’s Office later said some of the board’s search process violated the state open meetings law.

The teachers strike began Sept. 1 and continued for more than a week, often with parent and student support on the picket lines. A Franklin Superior Court judge granted the district an injunction against the strike and then found the union in contempt when teachers failed to report to work. A two-year deal between the district and union was reached Sept. 14.

Board members were criticized by teachers and parents throughout the strike for avoiding the public eye, canceling regularly scheduled public meetings and speaking only through a spokesperson.

The superintendent search, teachers strike and a perception that the district isn’t interested in listening to parents and teachers were cited by Aaron Richardson in his campaign to unseat board chairman Ryan Brault during this year’s school board elections. Richardson won with more than 56 percent of the vote.

3. A year of Hanford highs and lows

The Department of Energy was pressed by a federal judge to reveal just how much longer it needs to start full operation of the Hanford vitrification plant.

The answer was an astounding additional 17 years.

DOE is proposing a deadline of 2039 to have all parts of the plant operating simultaneously. Just five years ago it had agreed to a court-enforced deadline of 2022. Construction on the plant began in 2002.

However, DOE still may be able to start treating some of the low activity waste left from the past production of weapons plutonium in 2022 as technical issues delay treatment of high-level radioactive waste.

In other legal woes, DOE was sued by the state of Washington seeking better protection for workers from chemical vapors from waste held in underground tanks.

The Hanford tank farm contractor already had announced a multi-year plan to address 47 recommendations made in a new independent study, and in the meantime, was requiring that employees wear supplied air respirators for most work in the tank farms.

But after two decades of reports and rounds of improvements that have not put an end to vapor exposures, state officials said they wanted the court to take action to eliminate danger from tank vapors.

Almost overlooked amidst the year’s legal dramas at Hanford was its environmental cleanup success.

A 1,700-acre industrial complex for the site, the 300 Area just north of Richland, has largely been cleaned up .

About 209 structures, ranging from sheds to a contaminated building larger than a football field, have come down in the industrial park. Workers have cleaned up 312 waste sites, including burial grounds with drums of chemical and radioactive waste. Dirt laid bare by heavy equipment has been seeded with native vegetation that will come up in the spring.

4. Drought, record heat and water restrictions

What began as rain falling in the Cascades instead of snow turned into a full-fledged drought last summer.

The warmer-than-average winter caused a lack of mountain snowpack and eventually less water for Mid-Columbia crops.

Statewide temperatures for the first eight months of the year were the highest — 5 degrees above average — since records started being kept in the 1980s. Some watersheds dropped to a half or a third of normal levels.

Area irrigation districts, particularly those drawing water from the Yakima River, announced restrictions.

The state spent $5.6 million in drought relief projects, while the state Department of Agriculture estimated the drought caused $1.2 billion in damage to the industry.

Wildlife also suffered. Less water meant less vegetation and more wildfires.

An estimated 1.5 million fish also died at hatcheries. And record-high temperatures also were blamed for the deaths of more than 80 sturgeon up the Columbia River from Bonneville Dam, many of them in the Mid-Columbia.

Officials announced in December that the statewide drought declaration would expire at year’s end because of heavy rain and snow already falling in Western Washington and improving conditions in Eastern Washington.

5. B Reactor officially joins national park system

Hanford’s historic B Reactor officially became part of the nation’s national park system in November with the dedication of the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale production reactor, took 11 months to build, but it took more than 11 years to make the park a reality, said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

The inclusion of the reactor and other historical areas of the nuclear reservation in the new park ensure that they will be preserved. Generations to come will learn all sides of the story of the race to create an atomic bomb during World War II, park officials have said.

The Department of Energy already offers popular seasonal public tours of B Reactor and of the historic sites along the Columbia River where homes, businesses and farms were condemned to make way for the top-secret project.

Many more visitors are expected now that historic Hanford areas are under the arrowhead that symbolizes the National Park Service. Visitors can learn about visiting Hanford on the park service website at www.nps.gov/mapr/hanford.htm.

Local officials have been told to expect a tenfold increase in visitors as the park becomes fully operational in the next few years, boosting the Tri-City tourism economy.

6. Ex-Pasco officer charged with murder, voyeurism, rape

Allegations that a Pasco police officer sexually assaulted a woman while off-duty led to an unrelated charge of murder when DNA tests reportedly linked him to the 1986 strangling of a Spokane prostitute.

Richard J. Aguirre, 51, was a 27-year veteran when he was accused of raping a Tri-City woman. He was placed on leave and later resigned.

It was during the rape investigation that authorities entered Aguirre’s DNA into a national database. The DNA matched a profile taken from the scene of Ruby Doss’ death nearly three decades earlier in Spokane.

Investigators then say they found evidence that Aguirre secretly recorded having consensual sex with a man dressed in lingerie and high heels in a Spokane Valley hotel, according to court documents.

Aguirre is in the Spokane County jail on $1 million bail on charges of first-degree murder, voyeurism and two counts of tampering with a witness. His trial in both cases is set for Jan. 25.

And in Franklin County, he faces a February 2016 trial on charges of third-degree rape and fourth-degree assault for the alleged sexual assault.

7. Trios Health experiences financial woes

Trios Health in Kennewick celebrated some milestones in 2015, including its first full year operating the flagship Southridge hospital and the opening of a new outpatient care center and medical office building next door.

But it also experienced a cash crunch that made headlines early in the year, prompted layoffs and revealed division on the board of commissioners.

For several months, the public hospital district’s net income was consistently in the red and its accounts payable balance swelled to several million above the goal.

Although November was a slow month, overall the district’s finances improved throughout the year, officials have said.

In late October, the districts’ chief financial officer said, “We recognized and made corrections, and we’ve had (many) strong months in a row. That’s a great sign.”

8. Kennewick Man’s DNA links him to Northwest tribes

Kennewick Man was a local, the DNA in his 8,500 year old bones revealed in 2015.

A study by scientists specializing in ancient DNA analysis found commonalities with the DNA of contemporary Native Americans, including those of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

The finding upended the theory that the skeleton found along the Columbia River shoreline in Kennewick in 1996 was not Native American, based on the shape of his skull.

The Colvilles were among the Northwest tribes that originally claimed Kennewick Man as one of their own. But a federal judge ruled that the Kennewick Man, called the Ancient One by tribes, was not Native American, and allowed scientists to study the rare set of ancient bones.

Because of the DNA results, Kennewick Man may receive a tribal reburial yet. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Dan Newhouse have called for the bones to be turned over to a coalition of Northwest tribes.

9. Kennewick great-grandmother abducted from her home

An 86-year-old Kennewick woman was allegedly abducted from her home by three teens, including her great-grandson, and driven to Oregon where she escaped from the trunk of her own car.

Hazel Abel escaped the incident without any injuries and was returned safely to Benton County.

The teens — Dyllan Martin, 16, Billy Underwood, 15, and KateLynn Kenfield, 15 — were arrested hours after Abel escaped. They have been returned to Benton County and charged with first-degree kidnapping, first-degree burglary and car theft.

Court documents claim Martin and Underwood planned to kill Abel and even scouted areas to leave her so she would die from exposure. Martin, Abel’s great-grandson, and Underwood allegedly discussed burning her body in her car.

The teens wanted to run away and planned to use Abel’s car, court documents said. Abel was attacked at her Kennewick home Nov. 2, blindfolded, gagged and her hands were tied behind her back. She was then put in the trunk with her dog and driven to Oregon.

The car eventually stopped at a Walmart near Portland, and Abel popped the trunk while the suspects were in the store and escaped.

The teens were arrested in Oregon and held there for a while before returning to Benton County. Martin and Underwood have been charged as adults. Prosecutors say they want to charge Kenfield as an adult as well.

10. Hanford whistleblower receives $4.1 million settlement

Five years after Walter Tamosaitis was escorted from the Hanford vitrification plant offices, his former employer settled his whistleblower claim for $4.1 million.

“This settlement sends a message to whistleblowers everywhere that integrity and truth are worth fighting for and that you can win if you don’t give up,” Tamosaitis said when the settlement was made public.

In summer 2010, Tamosaitis raised concerns that technical issues had not been resolved, including how to keep high-level radioactive waste well mixed within the plant to prevent dangerous conditions. Bechtel National and its subcontractor URS needed to resolve mixing issues by a July 2010 deadline or would forfeit much of a $6 million incentive payment from the Department of Energy.

Bechtel and URS, which has since been acquired by AECOM, have strongly denied that Tamosaitis was removed from the project because of the issues he raised.

AECOM said it settled to put the issue behind the company. Tamosaitis said he agreed to settle his lawsuit against his former employer because most of his goals in taking legal action had been met.

In 2012, construction on key parts of the plant that will handle high-level radioactive waste was halted to resolve mixing and other technical issues, with construction yet to resume.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board also listened to Tamosaitis’ concerns, leading to a comprehensive investigation of safety culture not only at Hanford but across the DOE complex in response to Tamosaitis’ experience.

Reporters Annette Cary, Ty Beaver, Geoff Folsom, Kristin M. Kraemer, Tyler Richardson and Sara Schilling contributed to this report.