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A Look Back: Your Top 9 Viewer's Choice Stories of 2018

Posted at 3:22 PM, Jan 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-01 16:21:41-05

CINCINNATI — As 2018 draws to a close, it's hard not to look back at the highs and lows we've experienced since January. Whether they made you laugh, rage or hug a loved one, 2018 had some truly memorable stories.

We asked readers about their most memorable stories stories of the year, and now we’ve got your top 9:

9) Marvin Lewis keeps his job

The year started off with a bang, when uncertainty surrounding Marvin Lewis’ position with the Bengals flared. Despite leading the Bengals to countless wins and close championship runs during his 15-year tenure, the head coach’s reputation among Cincinnatians has been tenuous lately, and no one was certain his position was secure. In fact, many fans indicated they were hoping for a change of pace in the Bengals' leadership.

After a few too many seasons full of defeat, and even seeing the Cleveland Browns stampede through their defensive lines, diehard fans are starting to feel a little bitter toward Lewis. But in the end, Lewis was re-signed for two more years and went on to lead the Bengals through the 2018 season – for better or worse.

But, as we all know now, it was to be Lewis' final season: The Bengals announced they would part ways with Lewis on the final day of 2018.

8) Metropolitan Sewer District fraud

A state audit revealed that more than $779,000 was misspent by the Metropolitan Sewer District due to oversight issues. The audit found that contractors collected payment for work that was never completed, and expense reports were padded or improperly documented. “There was some bad stuff that we found. The oversight was not very good,” said Ohio Auditor Dave Yost. “They lacked some of the most basic kinds of things you would want - spot checking invoices against original documentation for example.”

This resulted in many companies throughout the Tri-State being ordered to repay large sums of money to the city, with leaders of MSD being held accountable for the fraudulent transactions. Under Ohio law, any public official who authorizes an illegal expenditure, or supervises the accounts from which an illegal expenditure is discovered, is liable for the amount of the expenditure, according to the audit. Seven different companies in the Tri-State, and four different government agencies received the improper payments between 2009 and 2015, and were ordered to repay every penny.

To date, here is what has been repaid to MSD:

  • Urban Strategies & Solutions: $294,000
  • Focus Solutions: $163,261
  • Ribway Engineering Group: $108,591 ($16,885 Repaid)
  • Greater Cincinnati Water Works: $82,366 (Fully Repaid)
  • City of Cincinnati Planning Department: $48,536 (Fully Repaid)
  • RA Consultants: $30,159
  • Crabbe, Brown, & James: $18,777 (Fully Repaid)
  • Ellington Management Services: $12,000
  • Hamilton County: $9,072 (Fully Repaid)
  • City of Cincinnati Finance Department: $6,840 (Fully Repaid)
  • Early Morning Software: $5,562

7) The Harry Black payout

In a story that developed throughout 2018, former City Manager Harry Black, resigned following a public feud with Mayor John Cranley. Rumors abounded that Black would be fired, and Cincinnati waited with bated breath to learn what the potential fallout would cause. As it turned out, Black could have been eligible for eight months pay if he had been fired, but that would have cost the city far less than what actually happened.

Although council accepted Black's resignation, they refused to pay him severance. City Council's rejection of Black’s severance package resulted in a settlement payment of $544,000 to avoid a lawsuit, which could have proved even more costly. The settlement amount resulted in Black being paid $121,000 more than his original severance package would have awarded, had the Council not voted against it.

6) Tent cities and homeless encampments

Throughout 2018, the landscape of Cincinnati shifted as many homeless camps and tent cities sprang up in and around Downtown, causing controversy and strife for city officials. At the peak of summer, as temperatures hit record highs, multiple camps could be seen around the city. The story quickly became difficult to track, as camps were shuffled from location to location, and city officials made multiple statements that often conflicted one another. The city extended deadlines for clearing out some of the camps after outrage was expressed over officials' lack of plan for the individuals living in the city.

As events unfolded, this issue caused Cincinnati to wonder about why people were choosing to live in a tent city rather than a homeless shelter, and what the deeper problem at hand may be. "Most frequent, probably, is that people came into shelter, and they did something that got them barred out, such as they acted out violently toward shelter staff," Strategies to End Homelessness CEO Kevin Finn said. He added: "(Another reason) why people would be on the street rather than in the shelter is that they have a severe mental illness and their symptoms make it difficult for them to be in a congregate facility or, in the case of a substance abuse issue, they literally can't make it through the night without a drink or using."

Mayor John Cranley specifically called the camp on Third Street "a public health hazard," citing a health department report. "There is an alarming increase in hepatitis outbreaks, there's risk of HIV, needles, urine, feces -- a totally unacceptable health hazard to the city," Cranley said. However, other city officials argued that cleaning a camp was only addressing the issue at hand, rather than working to solve the root of the problem.

"This is a problem that we have to address, the root of the causes of which are addiction, mental health and livable paying jobs, so that people never end up on the streets," Councilman Chris Seelbach said.

As homeless shelters overflowed, the city worked to get residents of the camps into more permanent shelter, from enrolling in detox programs to successfully locating permanent housing with the help of local service providers. Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters successfully filed a motion to permanently ban all encampments on public and private property countywide, causing push-back from members of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition. Executive director Josh Spring said that most of the people living in the camps had nowhere to go. "It's not hyperbole to say people are going into hiding," he said. "Folks living outside in Hamilton County both have a need and feel a need to hide from our city and our county."

In the end, the camps were cleared out, and many of the residents who could not secure permanent housing moved to different locations throughout Cincinnati, which Spring said actually causes more problems than solutions. “If you’re talking about people that need services, then chasing them off to place where they can’t be found is no way to provide those services,” he said.

5) Ohio River flooding

After a particularly wet winter, the Ohio River repeatedly burst its banks, causing flooding that affected thousands in the Greater Cincinnati area. The flooding affected daily life for much of the Tri-State, from flooded parking garages to homes partially submerged in the Ohio River. Roads were routinely closed throughout the month of February, affecting commutes, emergency routes and events happening Downtown. When the river finally crested, it reached 60.53 feet, the highest its been since the devastating flooding of 1997.

Students at Riverview East Academy in the East End relocated to Jacobs Center for classes, floodgates were installed throughout downtown Cincinnati, and locations like Smale Park and Belterra Park Gaming saw water flooding their facilities. Residents in neighborhoods all across the Tri-State were affected by the rising river in some way, and many were forced to pack up precious belongings and relocate as the water threatened their homes.

A state of emergency was declared, and officials opened a federal Disaster Recovery Center to help victims of the flooding receive support. Once the river finally receded, debris clung to the shorelines and filled the streets of The Banks and areas of downtown.

4) Kyle Plush Tragedy

The tragic death of 16-year-old Kyle Plush and the subsequent investigations launched is a story that changed the way Cincinnati’s 911 dispatch center operates. The Seven Hills student was trapped inside of his minivan on April 10, and suffocated to death, despite two separate calls for help to 911.

The Plush family has been outspoken regarding their feelings about what they see as the failures of dispatch and local police to save Kyle. Kyle's father, who discovered his son's body later in the day, has repeatedly spoken out about the circumstances of his son's death. "This can't happen to another family," Ron Plush said. "We need to identify all the failures that day and work toward solutions."

After an investigation that spanned many months, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters announced that no charges would be filed against anyone involved in the incident. Deters said his office reviewed the results of an internal investigation conducted by the Cincinnati Police Department and the Hamilton County Sherriff's Office. He also reviewed the external investigation, conducted by two hired firms, Mission Critical Partners and 21st Century Policing. “After a review of all of these documents, no criminal charges are appropriate and, therefore, none will be filed,” Deters said in a statement.

However, the Plush family has continued to push for improved practices and accountability within the systems of CPD and Cincinnati Dispatch. “It’s a time for Cincinnati City Council to be bold and do what’s right: demand that their questions be answered and due diligence be completed to prevent another senseless death,” the Plush family said in a statement released Dec 19. Since Kyle’s death, his family created the Kyle Plush Answer the Call Foundation . Part of its mission is to advocate for “common sense public policy that fosters safer, friendlier, and more resilient communities.”

3) Pike County Massacre suspects arrested

We won’t see the conclusion to this story in 2018, but the arrest of 6 people in connection with the 2016 murders in Pike County certainly makes this list.

Eight members of the Rhoden family were found shot to death at four homes on the morning of April 22, 2016. While speculation swirled about the possible motive and who could be responsible, Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader told WCPO that he believed the killers were locals. After a "thousand-piece puzzle" of an investigation spanning two years, 10 states and hundreds of interviews, investigators discovered the overnight murders of eight Rhoden family members -- the youngest just 16 -- likely came down to a custody battle over a toddler. The culprits, Attorney General Mike DeWine said, were the child's father and members of his extended family. According to their indictments, four of them plotted meticulously to kill the Rhodens on April 22, 2016, and conceal the evidence after.

Four members of the Wagner family, George "Billy" Wagner III, George Wagner IV, Edward "Jake" Wagner, and Angela Wagner, are each facing eight charges of aggravated murder with death penalty specifications and other crimes. Rita Newcomb, Angela Wagner's mother, and Fredericka Wagner, Billy Wagner's mother, face charges of obstructing justice and perjury. Newcomb also stands charged with forgery.

Jake Wagner and Hanna Rhoden, who was 19 when she was killed, had a child together. He also faces charges of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for allegedly having sexual contact with Hanna when she was 15 and he was 20.

"There certainly was obsession with custody, obsession with control of the children," DeWine said.

The four members of the Wagner family charged with murder are looking at death penalty charges. This case is also calling into question what can be done when a high profile case like this happens in a county unprepared for the fallout or financial toll.

2) Fountain Square Shooting

Cincinnati was thoroughly shaken in early September, when a single gunman disrupted the everyday hustle and bustle downtown by opening fire on people in the lobby of the Fifth Third center.

"He was like 4 meters away from me shooting," said one witness, a Fifth Third Bank employee. "These guys were waiting to be escorted into the building and I was swiping my card and I hear, 'Pop! Pop!' "

The witness said he saw three people shot. The shooter had "a short gun, just like a pistol," the witness said.

The shooter entered the loading dock area of Fifth Third Bank headquarters and opened fire at about 9 a.m. on Sept. 6. Three to four Cincinnati police officers exchanged fire with the gunman, Chief Eliot Isaac said. One of the officers shot and killed the gunman, 29-year-old Omar Santa-Perez. But not before he killed three people: Pruthvi Raj Kandepi, 25; Richard Newcomer, 64; and Luis Felipe Calderón, 48, were shot and killed by Santa-Perez. Another two people were injured.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Cranley said. “This is not normal, and it shouldn’t be viewed as normal. This is abnormal. No other industrialized country has this level of active multiple shooting on a regular basis … I think there’s something deeply sick at work here, and we as a country have got to deal with it.”

Police and first responders were lauded for their rapid response and efficient handling of the situation. Together, the Tri-State area mourned three lives lost, but celebrated those who survived thanks to those first responders.

1) Brody Allen

This year was filled with many stories, and plenty of breaking news, but the story that kept the Tri-State in rapt attention all year long was that of one little boy.

Brody Allen’s parents were told that, because of his illness, he wouldn’t make it to Christmas this year. This news sparked a fire in the community of Colerain that spread to all of Cincinnati in a matter of days, and folks came together to bring Christmas to the 2-year-old boy early. The Christmas spirit brought everyone together to celebrate Allen’s life, and he even got his own parade. Brody Allen passed away on Oct. 19, but the legacy of brotherhood and community he left behind has stayed with Cincinnati for the rest of the year.

How do you feel about our Top 9 list? Let us know if you think we missed anything, and how you feel about our list as it stands.