A mass shooting on Massachusetts Street was the biggest news story of the year in Lawrence in 2017, according to the editors and newsroom staff of the Journal-World.
The Oct. 1 shooting that left three people dead and two others injured on downtown’s busiest street easily took the top spot in the Journal-World’s annual review of major stories of the year.
Leah Elizabeth Brown, 22 of Shawnee, Colwin Lynn Henderson, 20, of Topeka, and Tre’Mel Dupree Dean-Rayton, 24, of Topeka, were killed as police estimated about 20 gunshots were fired on the city sidewalks near 11th and Massachusetts streets.
The shootings occurred about 1:40 a.m. as many downtown bars were closing after a busy Saturday night and early Sunday morning. As patrons were leaving the bars, they were confronted by police and emergency personnel administering aid to multiple victims lying in pools of blood on the sidewalks.
After 17 days of investigation and very few details of the shooting being released to the public, the Lawrence Police Department made its first arrests. Topeka residents Ahmad Malik Rayton, 22, and Dominique Jacquez McMillon, 19, were arrested and later charged. Rayton is charged with attempted murder and McMillon is charged with aggravated assault and battery. The following day, U.S. Marshals in Kansas City, Mo., arrested Anthony Laron Roberts, a 20-year old Topeka resident. He was later charged with one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and one count of attempted second-degree murder.
Police have said they believe the gunfire erupted from what started as a physical fight on the corner. Charges indicated that at least one of those killed, Brown, was a bystander not involved with the altercation. Few other details about the shooting have been released to the public, but more details may be forthcoming when the three defendants appear in court next month.
The triple homicide, the first in recent memory in Lawrence, capped a particularly violent month in Lawrence. From Sept. 1 to Oct. 1, five homicides were reported in Lawrence. For all of Douglas County in 2017, there were 10 homicides, the most recent being Wednesday's shooting death at a south Lawrence apartment. This is the highest homicide total for Douglas County in at least a decade. However, the year is not over yet, so the number may still grow.
Here’s a look at other major local stories of 2017, as determined by the Journal-World staff:
Bucking Brownback: In June, the Kansas Legislature ended Gov. Sam Brownback’s five-year experiment to lower Kansas tax rates in an effort to spur more growth. However, the Legislature had to do something it had never done before: Override a Brownback veto. The veto override marked the end of several controversial tax cuts that Brownback said would be “like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy.” But since the tax cuts were enacted, job growth and economic expansion in Kansas lagged behind the rest of the nation. Meanwhile, the state found itself in a near constant state of revenue shortfalls.
In recent months, the revenue picture has begun to improve. The Kansas tax cuts, though, are still drawing discussion. Some of the provisions in the recently approved federal tax overhaul are similar to the cuts Kansas made and then repealed.
Chancellor chosen: In May, Douglas Girod was named the 18th chancellor of the University of Kansas. In finding a replacement for Bernadette Gray-Little, who retired, KU found its winner in house, though not exactly in Lawrence. Girod had been executive vice chancellor of the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., since 2013. He first joined the KU Medical Center faculty in 1994.
Girod assumed his new duties in July, and then a few months later found himself in a familiar situation for KU chancellors: defending a football coach with a losing record. Unrest among KU football fans began to surface as football coach David Beaty finished his third season with a 3-33 record. Girod, though, gave a vote of confidence to both Beaty and Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger.
Guns on campus: In July, KU’s exemption from a state law that allows people to carry concealed guns on campus expired. Several faculty and student groups expressed great concern about the pending change and pointed to faculty members who said it was causing them to take their teaching careers elsewhere.
As far as large changes on campus, the ones most visible may be at athletic contests. KU is allowed to ban firearms at men’s basketball games and football games, if fans are required to pass through a security checkpoint that searches for guns. That has created longer lines at games and also has caused fans to leave at home their bags and other items they once took to games. The university, thus far, hasn’t reported any crimes related to concealed carry, although the campus was abuzz when a loaded handgun was found inside the stall of a men’s bathroom on the KU campus. The gun was determined to have been stolen.
School building: Expect to hear a lot of hammers and saws throughout the Lawrence school district in 2018. Voters in May easily approved an $87 million school bond. The bond issue raised property taxes by about 2.4 mills, but voters didn’t blink an eye. The bond issue was approved with about 75 percent of the vote. About $50 million of the money will be used to make improvements at aging Lawrence High School, but Free State High, the district’s middle schools and the district’s College and Career Center also are slated to be improved, in addition to some districtwide technology upgrades.
School showdown: Another year, another Kansas Supreme Court case examining whether state lawmakers are adequately funding K-12 education. In October, the court ruled that the Kansas Legislature’s latest school finance bill — which was approved over the summer — didn’t provide enough money to Kansas schools. But the court stopped short of a previous threat to close down schools. Instead, it gave lawmakers until June 30 to come up with a funding plan that provides both adequate and equitable funding to Kansas schools.
How much money that will entail involves some guesswork. The Supreme Court said the $195 million that legislators added during the last session wasn’t enough, but the court did not provide a specific number. The $195 million funding plan provided about $6.2 million in new state and local revenues to the Lawrence school district. The district in turn used about $3 million of the new funding to provide an approximately 6 percent raise to most teachers. District leaders had said teachers were overdue for a significant raise, and the new pay levels helps the district be more competitive with Johnson County schools.
Top cop: For the first time in at least 30 years, an outside set of eyes has been brought in to lead the Lawrence Police Department. Gregory Burns Jr. was hired in August to serve as the city’s chief of police. Burns previously was an assistant police chief in Louisville, Ky. Burns replaced Tarik Khatib, who retired as police chief after coming up through the Lawrence ranks. Khatib replaced Ron Olin, who also had come up through the local ranks. Also notable, Burns becomes the city’s first black chief of police, although history shows a black man held the title of city marshal for a few months in the 1890s.
Burns oversaw four major divisions in the Louisville Police Department: major crimes, narcotics, community services and special operations. Burns hasn’t yet launched any major new public initiatives, but said he’s working to get to know Lawrence residents and spread his message that a police department must be professional, respectful and fair.
Tax hike: Lawrence residents saw their largest property tax increase in recent memory in 2017. The total tax rate increased by about 6 mills; however, homeowners also saw higher taxes because of property values increasing by 3 percent to 5 percent in many cases.
Taxpayers felt the tax increases from all three major governments: the city, the county and the school district. Voters had given approval to the school district to raise taxes by about 2.4 mills as part of the $87 million bond issue. But many residents were surprised when the district added another mill onto that tax increase. District officials defended the decision, saying the tax increase was necessary to take full advantage of the state’s new school finance formula.
The city of Lawrence increased its tax rate largely to pay for a new $17 million police headquarters. Voters in 2014 rejected a sales tax proposal to pay for a police headquarters. This time, city officials shrank the size of the headquarters and decided to pay with property taxes instead of sales taxes. Importantly, city leaders also decided the issue shouldn’t be put to a public vote.
Douglas County increased its property tax rate largely to pay for about $2 million in new mental health services that it is providing. But this year may just be an opening act for an even larger county tax increase in 2018. County commissioners have spent much of the year planning for expansion of the county jail and construction of a new mental health care campus. The jail project currently is estimated to cost about $44 million to build and add about $6 million a year to operate. A cost estimate for the mental health care campus hasn’t been determined yet. The county has indicated it likely will seek a sales tax increase to pay for the project.
School switch: Kyle Hayden surprised several people in May when he announced that he was resigning his position as Lawrence school superintendent. But in an odd twist, a district press release said Hayden planned to stay with the district in a new role as chief operations officer. Several members of the public objected, in part, because the school board had not discussed any of the changes publicly before they were announced. In addition, the district balked at releasing Hayden’s proposed salary.
Ultimately, Hayden was allowed to move into the new position, but the incident was one of several in 2017 that caused a crop of new school board members to call for greater transparency when it comes to school district business. The district currently is conducting a search for a new superintendent. It plans to make public the names of the finalists and make a hire in February.
Big-time football: KU officials announced a campaign to raise $350 million to renovate Memorial Stadium, plus volleyball and baseball facilities on campus. About $300 million is set aside for the football stadium improvements. The money is not yet in hand, but KU got the campaign started by receiving a $50 million donation from alumnus David Booth. KU plans to rename Memorial Stadium in his honor. Any improvements are expected to be done in phases, with the first football improvements slated to be a new $26 million indoor practice facility. KU officials have said they want to start work soon, but they haven’t announced a firm timetable.
Several other big stories didn’t quite make it onto our top 10 but still received significant votes from the newsroom staff. Those included Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s rising national presence on President Trump’s voting commission, former Lawrence Mayor Jeremy Farmer’s prison sentence for embezzling from a local nonprofit, and a piece of fall KU sports news that actually boosted the spirits of the Jayhawk faithful: Bill Self’s induction into the basketball Hall of Fame.