January 2, 2007
10 Stories That Changed Greater Lowell in 2006
By Matt Murphy, The Sun, Lowell, Mass.
Jan. 2--The year 2006 brought a police officer putting his life on the line. It brought political intrigue in the changing of the guard in Lowell's City Hall and Police Department. It brought the halt to an effort to create the state's newest community. It brought its share of crimes and criminals
And it brought ark-level rain and a reminder that, in the toughest moments, neighbors help neighbors.
Here are the 10 stories that changed Greater Lowell:
For eight soggy days in early May, the skies opened up dropping a deluge of rain on the region.
And on that eighth day, the state's swollen and rivers and waterways could hold no more.
In the worst flooding in Lowell since 1936, the Merrimack River and Beaver Brook spilled over its banks drowning neighborhoods and homes in up to 10 feet of water knocking out electricity and water, and causing millions of dollars in damage.
Other Greater Lowell communities along the Merrimack River, such as Chelmsford and Pelham, were not spared.
In one of the worst-hit Pawtucketville neighborhoods near Alma Street, residents spent weeks cleaning out their homes of contaminated carpets, dry wall, appliances and personal belongings.
Declared a disaster area, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved $37 million in relief funding for Massachusetts families devastated by the floods drawing almost 10,000 applications. Lowell was approved for $670,000, a far cry short of the city's estimate of $25 million in damages.
Some families have not returned home.
And yet despite the great losses, the floods also brought out the best from many in the community with fundraisers, neighborhood block parties and charity donations proving once again that blood is thicker than water.
The urgent words no cop wants to speak crackled over the police radio on a chilly March morning after a chase ended with a crash on Andover Road at Billerica's Fox Hill Cemetery.
In a whirlwind crime spree, career criminal Joseph Croteau of Lowell robbed a gas station in Tewksbury, stole a van in Lowell and scuffled with police in Billerica after crashing the van into a police cruiser.
In the melee, Tewksbury Officer Brian O'Neill was shot with his own gun in the thigh after tackling Croteau to the ground and struggling to subdue him.
Croteau, linked to a string of separate convenience store robberies in Greater Lowell, will stand trial in April, facing 20 charges including armed assault to murder. He is being held without bail.
O'Neill, a 24-year-old Tewksbury native has returned to duty after a lengthy recovery.
Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey presented him with the Medal of Valor at the Statehouse in October.
To be a town, or not to be.
That was the question presented to residents of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley this fall, who were asked to decide whether they would forfeit land in their towns to create the state's newest municipality of Devens.
The answer: no, for now.
The former Army base has been under the control of MassDevelopment, a quasi-public agency charged with overseeing Devens redevelopment, for three years. In that time, Devens has sprouted new housing and businesses, including pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb, which decided to locate a new biomanufacturing facility at Devens.
Voters in Harvard and Ayer rejected Scenario 2B, which would have given Devens about 3,000 acres to form Massachusetts's 352nd community.
Shirley supported the plan.
So, for now, the future of Devens remains up for grabs as everyone involved takes a deep breath. MassDevelopment and the Devens Enterprise Commission plan to continue developing the land and could go to the Legislature for permission to build more housing.
Stakeholders have until 2036 to recommend a final government structure.
The clock wound its way to zero on Superintendent Steven Foster's five-year career as head of the Westford Public Schools.
Foster came under heavy fire from the School Committee and the public for not openly addressing incidents involving teacher drug abuse and the alleged rape of a student.
Foster, anticipating a poor performance review, came to a June School Committee meeting with his letter of resignation.
The School Committee blasted him, and Foster retired.
Some might say Foster's departure from Westford had been building up for several years.
In 2004, former Westford Academy math teacher Rosemarie Pumo plead guilty to selling heroin to students and teaching them how to inject it.
Then in October 2005, Foster was heavily criticized for failing to notify parents when Blanchard Middle School teacher Susan Clickner was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old boy in her car.
The latest bombshell came in January when Jessica Palkes, a former Stony Brook Middle School teacher, was arrested for heroin possession.
Poor communication became the biggest complaint against Foster. And so he gave way to Assistant Superintendent Bill Olsen.
The first death came on Feb. 19.
Known gang member Chhoeup Chhom was shot in the chest by a rival gang member leaving a party on Stevens Street.
The most recent death happened on afternoon of Dec. 15 when Augusto A.C. DeGree was shot in the chest in a second-floor, downtown apartment on Central Street.
Lowell experienced a dramatic spike in murders in 2006 with 14, despite reports of the continued decrease in violent crime in the city.
The 14 murders doubled the count from the previous two years, combined leaving the public concerned about the rise in violence and police scratching their heads to find a connection among the homicides.
Some were gang-related. Others were drug-related. Police did not find any of the murders to be random acts of violence, and yet some seemed to result from just petty disputes.
Lean budgets have forced the Police Department to leave as many as 16 officer position unfilled. And though he recognized the effect of less officers walking the beat, the-Police Superintendent Edward Davis said many of the murders would have been difficult to prevent, because they happened between people who knew each other.
Not since 1994, with nine homicides, has the murder rate raised as much concern as it did in 2006. There were five murders in 2004, and two in 2005.
Spring on the baseball diamond and fall on the gridiron. These are to supposed to be moments of youthful innocence.
But in three Greater Lowell communities this year, young athletes and their parents got a bitter dose of reality with football and baseball league officials in Billerica, Tewksbury and Chelmsford standing accused of stealing thousands of dollars from their respective leagues.
In July, former Billerica Pop Warner President Jeffrey Klane pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $130,000 from the league over four years. He has repaid the league.
Former Tewksbury Youth Baseball President Fred Daley was indicted earlier this month for stealing $423,000.
And then just this week, Chelmsford police announced they will charge former Chelmsford Pop Warner Treasurer Ernest "Lenny" Mills with 16 counts of embezzlement. Though he only stands accused of bilking $2,500 from Chelmsford kids, police and league officials are hopeful further investigation will cause that figure to grow.
In all three cases, the youth athletic leagues have instituted more comprehensive and professional accounting practices.
It took some concentration to follow the musical chairs of local politics.
The shuffling started in April, when six Lowell city councilors told City Manager John Cox that it was time to go.
Cox, who served more than six years, officially left office in July. A nationwide search led to councilors selecting the manager next door, in Chelmsford Town Manager Bernie Lynch.
Since arriving in Lowell, Lynch has put his fingerprints on almost everything that has come across his desk, moving to take away health benefits from appointed city board members and to close an inherited $8 million budget deficit with increased fees, property taxes and budget reductions.
Lynch left Chelmsford with a vacancy, as the Board of Selectmen looked to hire only the second town manager in the town's history.
Ultimately they turned to Harvard Town Manager Paul Cohen, a Lowell native who was one of three finalist for the Lowell city manager job.
The second time was a charm for former Lowell Police Superintendent Edward Davis.
After being named a finalist for the job of Boston's top cop in 2004 -- only to lose out to Kathleen O'Toole -- Davis announced in October that he would succeed O'Toole in Boston as that city's next police commissioner.
He took over in Boston on Dec. 1.
The step up ended Davis's 28-year law enforcement career in Lowell where he spent 12 years as police superintendent. But it also gave Lowellians a reason to puff out their chest as one of their own left for the "big city."
Davis leaves behind a long legacy in Lowell where his strong belief in community policing has been credited with reducing crime on the streets and helping to control gang violence that once plagued the Mill City.
In Boston, he inherits a fiercely insular police department and a city reeling from increased violence, particularly in the neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, where the murder rate skyrocketed in 2006.
Back in Lowell, Deputy Superintendent Kenneth Lavallee has stepped in on an interim basis.
Nothing divided a community in 2006 more than the issue of Home Depot coming to the Billerica Mall.
The Orange Wars started way back in December 2005 when mall owner R.D. Management revealed its plans to revitalize the rundown Billerica Mall with a Home Depot as the new anchor store to join Market Basket, Burlington Coat Factory and Kmart.
A neighborhood opposition group called Billerica First formed quickly. Members vocally criticized the plan for the traffic it would bring to Billerica Center and the impact it would have on local businesses.
The Billerica First charge, which included a bevy of lawn signs proclaiming the need to "Save Our Center," has been led by Tower Farm Road resident Nancy Graham, Bob Casey, Fred Ciampa and state Rep. Bill Greene.
Small-business owners in the mall and other residents who would like to see the mall redeveloped have pushed back.
And yet after a year of posturing and many public meetings, next to nothing has been resolved.
Since the debate began, Planning Board members Steve Hart and Walter Bradbury have resigned, and attorney Stephen Lentine announced his client's decision to pull the project off the table, with the intention of resubmitting a revised plan.
Billerica First has declared victory, to an extent. Speculation is that Burlington Coat plans to leave the mall, clearing the way for Home Depot to move in without a special permit from the Planning Board.
State police dubbed the Lowell Connector the deadliest three-mile stretch of highway in the state.
But it was the memory of 31-year-old Deborah Hornberger that weighed on the public conscience long after the debris from her accident was cleared from the Lowell Connector.
Hornberger, 31, and her unborn child were killed in Nov. 2005 by a man who lost control of the car he was drag racing on the Connector and crossed the median plowing into Hornberger.
The accident gave way to an outcry from the public and state lawmakers about the safety of the highway which connects Route 3 and Interstate 495 with sections of the city.
By February, MassHighway had installed guard rails along the entire median strip in both directions. The state has also pledged to redesign the intersection at Gorham Street where the Connector empties.
Lowell police conducted sting operations throughout the year to catch speeding drivers on the Connector.
As for the two drag racers, Angel Nieves, 26, pleaded guilty on Dec. 5 to two counts of motor vehicle homicide. Nieves drove the car that crashed into Hornberger.
He was sentenced to five years in the Billerica House of Correction, three years probation, and 15 years loss of license.
His racing partner Carlos Rodriguez, 19, got five years in prison and five years probation for pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Matt Murphy's e-mail address is [email protected]
Copyright (c) 2007, The Sun, Lowell, Mass.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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