These Evansville information tales had been among the greatest in 2019
EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The final year of the decade included some surprising news stories, including hard-fought sports wins, unexpected financial windfalls and political gambles that paid off.
Some of 2019’s biggest stories will continue to play out well into the next year and decade as our community evolves along with its institutions and businesses.
The year behind us included lots of tragedy and loss too. Here is a look at some of the top news stories in our community from 2019.
With well over 100 food booths, carnival rides and other activities, the week-long West Side Nut Club Fall Festival has plenty to keep people coming back to Franklin Street every year.
This year’s star attraction turned out to be a half pot ticket drawing that generated more than $1.2 million. Half of that amount, $612,000 and change, was paid to a winning ticket holder in November who chose to remain anonymous.
The Nut Club said it would use the other half of the proceeds for offsetting the costs of hosting the festival and donate the rest to local charities.
It was the first year the Nut Club tried the half pot.
Excitement built as people watched on the Nut Club website as the amount of money in the pot climbed higher through the week adding to the ticket-buying frenzy as people rushed to secure their own chance at the half pot, however remote.
UE beats UK in basketball
With a last-second shot at the buzzer, the University of Evansville beat number one ranked University of Kentucky in an epic game followed nationwide on Nov. 12.
With that, the team picked eighth in the preseason Missouri Valley Conference poll, beat the winningest program in college basketball history.
The final score: Evansville 67, Kentucky 64.
From the start, the stage was set for a potentially dramatic showdown well before the Aces walked onto Kentucky’s home court in Lexington.
Aces coach Walter McCarty was leading his hometown team against his alma mater. McCarty had been part of Kentucky’s 1996 NCAA championship team, a victory that helped launch him into a lengthy career playing and coaching in the NBA.
In the world of sports betting, the Aces were 25-point underdogs. It was only the third time in UE basketball history that the Aces had played a top-ranked team.
The Aces played hard, not trailing Kentucky by more than three points for the entire game.
Democrat mayor’s race gamble
Local Democrats had to get lucky in one high-stakes moment and then wait months to find out if their gamble in the 2019 city election would pay off. It did – and Democrats won a commanding 7-2 City Council majority even while ceding re-election to Republican Mayor Lloyd Winnecke.
When none of the Democrats’ top-tier candidates proved willing to take on the popular Winnecke, then-Democratic Chairman Scott Danks had a choice.
Danks could leave the Democratic line on the mayoral ballot blank and gamble that Republican voters would not turn out on election day. Lacking any sense that Winnecke was threatened, they would see no compelling reason to vote. Sure, it would be the first time a major political party had failed to field a candidate for Evansville’s top job in at least 85 years — but Danks reasoned that a big Republican turnout would only hurt Democratic City Council candidates.
There was just one problem. Danks could not forbid a Democrat lacking experience — or worse, saddled with personal liabilities — from stepping up to file for mayor. That could energize the well-funded Winnecke’s vast network of supporters and volunteers when Danks was hoping to lull them to sleep.
So the Democratic chairman enlisted his son, attorney Jonathan Danks, to file his candidacy just before the noon Feb. 8 deadline if someone else filed under the party’s banner. And someone almost did. Connie Whitman, a 68-year-old former van driver and pizza delivery person, walked into the Vanderburgh County Election Office intending to file as a Democrat. But Whitman had voted most recently in a Republican primary election, leaving her ineligible.
Jonathan Danks swept into the Election Office seconds before noon, prepared to file his candidacy papers if necessary. It wasn’t. Democrats would offer no opposition to Winnecke.
Nine months later, the gamble paid off. Winnecke won re-election, but Republican voters didn’t turn out in large numbers – leaving Democrats to win seven of the City Council’s nine seats, setting the course for city government for the next four years.
Legal sports betting
Things at Tropicana Evansville casino continued to heat up in 2019 with the September debut of regulated, legal sports betting in Indiana.
The much-anticipated change came just two years after Indiana law allowed the casino to move from its former riverboat home docked on the Ohio River to dry land on the Evansville riverfront.
The casino opened a state-of-the-art sportsbook featuring a 16-by-9 feet video wall, ten 65-inch viewing monitors, and 12 odds boards, to provide sports fans with comfortable places to watch sports with friends and bet on games. It was the first of its kind in Evansville, one of 13 sports booking locations allowed in the state.
The Supreme Court of the United States opened the door to it all in May 2018 when it struck down a 1992 law that forced states to ban sports betting. Indiana was ready, its General Assembly having already approved and sent a sports betting bill to Gov. Eric Holcomb who signed it the same month.
Drag Queen Story Hour
It was reading a book to children. What could go wrong with that? The answer to that question was a bit more complicated.
Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library officials said they were asked by local individuals and families to bring Drag Queen Story Hour — a national literacy initiative meant to promote greater cultural understanding and acceptance — to Evansville.
After receiving no disapproval from the EVPL Board of Trustees, the event was scheduled to take place in February at the North Park library branch. Then news reports about the event triggered a firestorm of social media commentary as well as phone calls and emails to library officials.
Lines were drawn for and against the event, with even some city and state elected officials vocally opposing it.
In the end, about 275 children and parents attended the Saturday morning event, which consisted of four reading sessions. The library estimated around 150 people who wanted to attend had to be turned away because the room designated for the event was at full capacity. Inside, according to library officials, everything went smoothly. However, outside the library branch, Evansville Police Department officers were on hand to keep separate protesters and supporters gathered near the entrance.
Protesters, including some who traveled from other states such as Mississippi and Alabama, used megaphones and screamed insults across the parking lot at parents bringing their children to the event.
Downtown construction projects
The $18.1 million Ascension St. Vincent YMCA Downtown opened in September at 516 Court St., replacing an older facility across the street from it. The two-story structure includes a swimming pool 25 yards long and 6 lanes wide, a gymnasium with three basketball courts, three volleyball courts and five pickleball courts, a three-lane running and walking track circling above the gym floor, workout area, rooms for various fitness classes, a child watch room and other amenities.
The new YMCA was one of many construction projects underway Downtown. Other projects in the works include:
- The Post House, a $40 million, luxury apartment development at Northwest Third and Vine streets
- A new three-story Deaconess Clinic Downtown at Walnut and Fifth streets south of the Ford Center, slated to open in spring 2020
- The $18 million, 139-room Hyatt Place hotel on Southeast Second Street
- The Mediterranean, a boutique hotel at the old Riverhouse at Riverside Drive and Walnut Street
- Signature School’s addition on Main Street, just south of the Ford Center
- Renovation of the former Nabisco building at Northwest Second and Ingle streets, into a mixed-use development that will include 22 apartments and a restaurant run by owners of Pangea Kitchen.
The merger of Evansville-based electric and gas utility with Houston’s CenterPoint Energy began in 2019.
As expected, several senior executives of Vectren were already known to be part of the reduction. However, other laid-off employees were not informed until the transaction became official in February, prompting a flurry of social media rumors. Afterward, company officials said there were about 300 layoffs across the newly combined company but declined to say how many were in Evansville.
The company promised no changes in services or community philanthropy.
Three individuals died in incidents involving the Evansville Police Department in 2019, although officers were not determined at fault in any of them.
In the first, 55-year-old Edward Snukis, of St. Clair, Pennsylvania, died the evening of Sept. 13 after what police described as a “confrontation” with officers, who deployed a Taser stun gun on Snukis two times.
Officers were called to the D-Patrick Honda dealership at 4300 Division St. at 7:45 p.m. for a report of a man who was intoxicated and in a restricted area of the business. Police said Snukis refused to cooperate, punching an officer in the nose and knocking him to the ground. Although a second officer used a Taser on Snukis, he was able to overcome its effects and run from officers. Snukis was handcuffed after a struggle and an attempt to flee. Police said he was unresponsive when he was rolled over. He was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Police said Snukis was later found to be unarmed and didn’t have any drugs or alcohol on him.
Vanderburgh County Coroner Steve Lockyear ruled the death an accident. He said an autopsy and toxicology report showed Snukis’ death was a result of methamphetamine intoxication and an enlarged heart.
In a second incident, an Evansville Police Department officer shot and killed 45-year-old Terry Chanley, of Wadesville, Indiana on Oct. 28 on Morgan Avenue just west of Theater Drive.
The shooting happened after Chanley’s Jeep Wrangler ran off the road and struck a utility pole. Police said at a press conference that Chanley aggressively approached Officer Mario Reid with a hammer before he was fatally shot.
According to police, when Reid asked Chanley for his driver’s license and registration, Chanley reportedly shook his head and reached for an object under his seat. The officer told Chanley to stop, but he ignored the commands. Reid backed away from the vehicle, drew his weapon and ordered Chanley to show his hands. Chanley allegedly pointed a black object at the officer, who believed the black claw hammer to be a gun. Chanley then left his vehicle and began walking toward Reid.
The officer fired at Chanley, believing him to be an immediate threat to himself and witnesses. At 6:32 p.m., a report of shots fired was sent over dispatch radio. Chanley continued to advance toward Reid, who was backing away. Reid fired again. Chanley still was approaching the officer, who fired once more.
The shooting left many questions still unanswered.
An Evansville man was killed on Dec. 21 when officers responded to an afternoon call of an armed man threatening suicide at Arbors in Eastland apartments.
The Vanderburgh County Coroner’s Office identified the man as Brian Lee Mullen, 57, and said he died of two gunshot wounds.
The arriving officers were confronted by a man holding a handgun, police said. The officers gave the man several commands to drop the weapon. He refused, and one of the responding officers fired at him. Mullen was alone when the officers arrived.
Three arrested in missing woman’s death
It began to unravel at an extended stay motel on Old Business 41 in Evansville. Police were called there to investigate a report of a man beating a woman in one of the motel rooms.
After William Snyder, 35, was arrested for beating his girlfriend Angela Paul, 32, he told police she had killed another woman and buried her body in the garage of an Evansville home. That woman was 29-year-old Evonne Marie Pullen, who had last been seen or heard from in September 2018. She was found beaten and buried in a garage in the 1000 block of North Third Avenue.
Three people are facing murder and other charges in Pullen’s death: Angela Paul, her mother Joan Paul, 55, and Gary Anderson, 56.
Angela Paul reportedly brought Pullen, who was mentally challenged, to Evansville to collect her disability checks after the two met at a shelter in Virginia, according to probable cause affidavits from the arrests. Lockyear said Pullen’s death was a homicide caused by blunt force trauma.
Those close to Pullen recalled she was a selfless and giving woman who despite the hardships she faced in life, managed to spread joy to others.
“She was a very happy woman, just seemed down on her luck, could never catch the right break but when she was face to face with you, she lifted you up,” said Pastor Andy Combs of What’s New Worship Church in Winchester, Virginia.
Young lives lost
Many more loved ones were lost to families and friends in 2019 than those whose deaths were somehow newsworthy. Among the people whose deaths did make the news, were several whose passings were made even more poignant by a combination of circumstance and age.
Sarah Schoenbaechler, 16, of Newburgh, touched the hearts of many in her community as she struggled with autonomic dysfunction disorder, cerebral palsy and developmental disabilities throughout her life. She died on Sept. 19.
In July, with Sarah in hospice care, her family decided to throw a parade with Sarah as the guest of honor. It was a celebration of everything Sarah loved — books, tacos, flamingos, bubbles, classical music and anything pink. The town of Newburgh even passed an official proclamation, making July 20 Sarah Schoenbaechler Day. It was a neighborhood event like no other.
“Sarah was an inspiration – and friend to all who met her. Sarah spent her life fighting and overcoming each new challenge that was thrown her way; and, she did so with an unwavering smile and a thumb’s up,” her obituary read. “Sarah loved everyone fiercely, especially those closest to her. She never knew an easy day, but, you would never know it.
“Sarah taught her family the meaning of perseverance and hope.”
On April 4, Joshua Varner, 33, and his 4-year-old daughter Vivian, died while kayaking at Blue Grass Pit in Warrick County, according to Indiana Conservation Officers.
Joshua was just weeks away from celebrating his 34th birthday. He was married to Jennifer Varner and served as the director at Octapharma Plasma in Evansville.
In their obituary, Vivian was remembered as “a bright, blue-eyed vibrant little girl” whose “contagious smile paired with her daily princess dresses and cowgirl boots lit up any room.”
The father-daughter duo was described as inseparable.
“Josh was an outstanding father to Vivian. The two of them could be seen running around the house dressed up and playing princesses or riding bikes with the dogs around the neighborhood. They had a special bond, and there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for her – from being a personal jungle gym to a tickle monster.”
On July 9, 3-year-old Oliver “Ollie” Dill died after being forgotten in a parked car at the University of Southern Indiana. In his obituary, he was remembered as a fun-loving, active boy who loved playing jokes on family and friends, and loved playing with his brother and cousin.
“Ollie enjoyed reading and playing in the sandbox and water tables at USI Children’s Learning Center, where he loved the ladies. He had a love for food, especially, turkey, mashed potatoes and mac-n-cheese. Ollie was known for being a practical joker. He had a love for animals and enjoyed going to the zoo,” his obituary read.
A young man who inspired many in the Tri-State during his lifelong battle with a rare genetic illness continued to inspire even after his unexpected death this week by donating his organs.
Glennden Stovall, 13, succumbed to complications from Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome on Christmas Eve. Among the organs doctors were able to save for donation were his heart and lungs.
Known to many in the community as “Superman,” Stovall was a member of the Highland Challenger baseball team that appeared at the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania in August 2018.
Stovall brought a smile to anyone’s face who was around, friends said in describing him. The boy was a “true testament to a kid being a kid and not letting his disability get in the way.”
In May, 15-year-old Mason Bogard died days after being found unconscious in his home. A social media post from his mom Joann Bogard linking her son’s death to a social media challenge known as the choking challenge or choking game quickly went viral. In the game, people cut off their own airways briefly to achieve a high.
But the Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Office said they were unable to link the teen’s death to the game or social media challenge.
Mason Bogard donated his organs helping save six lives, his family had said.
“He would have wanted it this way,” Joann Bogard wrote in a Facebook post about his organ donation. “He was an extremely generous young man.”