The Independent News shouldn’t be able to compete in such a small market that’s dominated by such large media corporations like Sinclair Broadcasting (WEAR TV) and Gannett (Bella Magazine, GoPensacola.com and News Journal). The big guys have all the money, all the contacts with national advertisers and all the staff.
WEAR had Mollye Barrow Vigodsky’s pregnancy and a plethora of toothless locals to interview for the nightly news. PNJ had Deal Chicken and bikini contests.
What we have is heart…and you, our readers. Because you read us, care about this community and are willing be active parts of the solution, this paper has an impact.
Since July 1, 1999, our goal has been to make this place a better place to live for all of us by going deeper into the stories that others skim over, investigating the problems that have gone overlooked and daring to challenge the status quo.
In 2011, we chose our cover stories carefully. We added young, talented reporters, like Jeremy Morrison, Hana Frenette and Jennie McKeon, to help us meet our goal. Here are our top cover stories for the past year:
Escambia County’s Secret
By Hana Frenette
Jan. 20, 2011
It’s not something community leaders want to talk about, but Escambia County has an HIV/AIDS problem. The county is ranked second in the state for most reported cases of women and children and is ranked 12th out of 67 counties for the most overall reported HIV/AIDS cases.
In fact, Escambia is the poster child for the AIDS epidemic in the region and state. It has seen a 23 percent increase in cases since 2005. A disproportionate number of local cases—as is the case in larger contexts as well—impact the African-American community.
For those living with the disease, there are local places to turn for help. Appetite for Life, a local food delivery non-profit—focuses specifically on patients with HIV/AIDS. Health officials also encourage regular testing.
In 2009, the state of Florida pegged the number of AIDS cases at 4,429. Of the adult cases, 67 percent were males, 53 percent were black, 26 percent were white and 19 percent were Hispanic. Three percent of the state’s cases were in children 13-years-old and under.
Brother Can You Spare A Dime?
By Jennie McKeon
March 3, 2011
Bob once owned two houses, his own business and a brand new Corvette. Now the Vietnam veteran lives in the woods in Pensacola with a black cat named Midnight.
“I came back from the hospital and the bank had taken away everything,” he said.
The 61-year-old had a heart attack and lost it all. He’s has lung cancer and is treated with chemotherapy at the VA clinic, but he still smokes cigarettes.
Bob is one of Pensacola’s tribe of homeless. He panhandles and scrapes by.
They are down on their luck, some have given up. But there are places to turn.
“It was either sleeping in my truck or in the shelter,” said Thomas Webber. “When you’re a father, you learn to swallow your pride real quick-like.”
Webber is a single father who had run out of options, when he turned to Loaves and Fishes. The organization is one of several in the area where homeless can seek help. Waterfront Rescue Mission and Manna Food Pantry also offer services.
By Rick Outzen
April 7, 2011
He called it his “turnaround school.” But Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas may have bitten off more than he could chew with Warrington Middle School.
Thomas declared that the school—teetering between a C and D status since 2000—would become the highest-achieving middle school in the district, and he put stimulus dollars behind that declaration.
Following a three-month investigation by the IN, a contrasting portrait was revealed. The school’s first “turnaround” year had been filled with allegations of Principal Sandra Rush redirecting nearly $7,000 in school funds earmarked for the classrooms to office furniture and decorations, of her office aide running an apparent fundraising scam and of sexual misconduct by students on a bus with no adult supervision.
District officials investigated all allegations. Many were found to be true, while others may never be fully resolved. Few of the details were made public until the IN shared them.
The school may eventually turn around. But, at what cost? And more importantly, was there a conscious effort on the part of Thomas and school officials to hide the problems at WMS?
By Rick Outzen
Aug. 3, 2011
Only Pensacola can nearly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
On the eve of the Community Maritime Park Associates Board of Trustees meeting to vote on the final construction budget and use agreement with the Blue Wahoos, Mayor Ashton Hayward and CMPA Chairman Collier Merrill were told the budget had been miscalculated.
The construction costs were projected to be $4 million over budget. CMPA Executive Director Ed Spears had the solution. He argued the Blue Wahoo owners, Quint and Rishy Studer, owed not one pledge for $2 million, but two such donations to the CMPA, which conveniently totaled $4.3 million. Studers balked and provided documents that proved that only one donation was ever intended.
The CMPA board agreed with the Studers.
Soul of the Community
By Jennie McKeon
Aug. 11, 2011
Churches still provide the foundation for Pensacola. Whether it’s the youth, the homeless or just someone looking for a way out, they’re making a difference.
“We try to put the creed into the deed,” said Pastor Charles Morris, of Bethel AME Church.
Morris is joined by other area pastors—like Lonnie Wesley and LuTimothy May—in fostering a better place to live one prayer at a time.
“I learned a lot of life lessons on Montclair and Massachusetts, Market Street and Michael Drive,” said Pastor Wesley, of Greater Little Rock Baptist Church. “That’s my neighborhood. I love that place. The people taught me a lot.”
May tries to steer his community through his post at Missionary Baptist Church. He deals with difficult issues in a difficult world. It’s not easy.
“It’s very challenging for preachers to give a message of hope in a world that has so much hopelessness and despair,” May said.
The pastors rely on their religion to console and encourage.
“When you walk out of the door and you hear gunshots, or see drugs or helplessness and an economy that’s declining, that’s the sign of the cross,” May said. “It reminds you of Jesus being nailed and crying. If you can deal with the cross you can deal with anything in life.”
The Hammer or Redemption?
By Jeremy Morrison
Sept. 15, 2011
A.A. Charter School of Excellence was not doing well. The school—in its second year and serving primarily minority students—was climbing its way out of a $100,000 hole and had been labeled a failing institution by the state.
Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas was ready to yank the school’s charter and shut the doors. When the community stepped forward, hired a new principal and reorganized the school, the school district put off the execution.
“I’ve been very comfortable in going to schools and turning them around,” said Kathy Colbert, the charter’s new principal.
Colbert also said she felt the charter was important because it served an at-risk population.
“We have to make sure, at school, we are providing a very warm and fuzzy environment,” she said.
Rev. LuTimothy May, the new chair of the board of directors, was a key player in convincing Thomas to give the charter another year.
“I got involved because they needed some intervention, some help, some direction,” May explained.
The big difference makers were Julian and Kim MacQueen who had their Innisfree Hotels adopt the inner-city elementary school.
When Yellow Ribbons Aren’t Enough
By Rick Outzen
Sept. 22, 2011
One day some soldiers walked into the offices of the Independent News. They had a story to tell. It was a tough one to hear.
The men came to discuss the high rate of suicide among veterans, particularly troops that have returned home from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We have 18 veterans a day killing themselves—6,500 since the beginning of the year,” said Lt. Col. Dave Glassman, a retired Marine. “We’ve lost more by suicide than combat over the last two years. This is a tragedy of monumental proportions.”
The men talked about how entering back into civilian society is rough, something many returning veterans are not equipped to do.
“When they come back after spending months, if not years, without facing what they saw and experienced, it starts to come out and they are acting out,” Glassman said
“They go to jail, they hit the wife, they become unemployed, they become addicted to alcohol or drugs.”
Too often it ends badly.
“I told myself that I was going to die anyway,” recalled one of the men. “I pretty much assigned myself to die while I was over there … Why not just get over it?”
The Kids Aren’t Alright
By Jeremy Morrison
Sept. 29, 2011
A summer full of gritty street violence sheds light on a Pensacola problem. An old man is set on fire, a baby is shot. Kids shoot each other for no reason.
“They fight to fight. Drugs. Money,” a local woman pondered. “Everybody is broke, so they’re killing.
Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan attributed it to a “societal breakdown.”
“I’ve taken to apologizing to young people when I talk to them,” Morgan said. “Kids deserve an apology.”
Deputies with the Sheriff’s gang unit feel it’s going downhill fast.
“Every year it’s worse,” said Deputy David Brown. “It’s never been like this before.”
Brown recalled a conversation with an older inmate who told him this generation was lost, told him to start working on the 5-year-olds.
“I think, sadly, that’s probably true,” conceded Morgan. “We’ll save some. There’ll be small glimmers of hope, but very few. And I find that very sad.”
DeLuna Fest ’11
By IN Staff, led by Joani Delezen
Oct. 14, 2011
There were mega-rock stars (Jane’s Addiction), indie icons (The Shins) and plenty of up-and-comers (like Givers, Matt & Kim and Ra Ra Riot). Not to mention the hip-hop (Big Boi) and rockabilly (Wanda Jackson).
This year’s DeLuna Fest was a weekend of sand-in-your-pants partying surrounded by music and water. Who cares that Linkin Park dropped out? No, seriously, do you care?
For a few days, a strip of Pensacola Beach transformed into a late-summer carnival. Attendees were able to take in the weekend’s music and enjoy the beach. It’s a good thing.
This year, the beach was treated to Weezer, Girl Talk, The New Pornographers, Asobi Seksu and a bunch of other ear candy.
The Great American Campout
By Jeremy Morrison
Nov. 3, 2011
It began with a curious pow-wow near the dark sparkling waters at the end of Palafox Street, which grew into a lavish campout at Pensacola City Hall only to later shrink—as a result of time and legal maneuvering—to its present curbside display.
Occupy Pensacola sprung up alongside countless other Occupy-tethered sleep-ins, or rather, outs, in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street in New York City. The movement is criticized for being unfocused and lacking a discernable message. Occupiers claim such characteristics as fluid advantages and rally collectively around the notion of inequality in a rigged system.
“Without sounding too much like a revolutionary, Jefferson would be rolling around in his grave,” said Gary Paull, Jr.
Locally, protesters have spent much of their time fighting city officials for the right to camp at city hall. While tents were allowed to flourish for a while—with the city providing water and electricity—campers were eventually kicked to the curb. Occupiers may now protest injustices only if they stay on the sidewalk that borders the city hall property
A few protesters remain on the corner in front of city hall. Honk your horn next time you drive by. Or, maybe stop and thumb through the makeshift People’s Library.
Ills of the Spill
By Jeremy Morrison
Nov. 17, 2011
The 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a many-layered monster. Its ramifications are just being grasped, especially when it comes to the spill’s impact on human health.
“We know we should look at respiratory effects,” said Dr. Dale Sandler. “We know we should look for changes in the blood. And we should be concerned if there’s longer term neurological problems.”
Sandler heads up a federal study examining possible health issues surrounding the spill. She led her crew from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences around the Gulf Coast on community tour this fall.
The NIEHS is conducting a study on how the spill—and chemical dispersants—impacted human health along the Gulf Coast. Her team is planning to come to Pensacola in January.
Thus far, the feds have been met with some amount of skepticism.
“Y’all’s study is too late for us!” James “Catfish” Miller told Sandler when she was in Biloxi, Miss. “We’ll be dead in 10 years, maybe five.”
Across the region, people have complained of a myriad of health problems that they trace to the spill. While they seek answers from the handful of scientists willing to approach the issue, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility’s Ken Feinberg has said he is “dubious” of spill-related health claims.
Haitian Adoption Nightmare
By Rick Outzen
Dec. 15, 2011
The story was one of the truly “feel good” stories coming out of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. Forty-one children from a Christian orphanage in Port-de-Paix were airlifted to loving U.S. families spread across 10 states. Within months, the children began telling stories of physical and sexual abuse at the mission that was ironically called “In the Father’s Hands.”
What the adoptive parents didn’t realize is that many of them were bringing ticking time bombs into their homes–children so severely physically and sexually abused by those at the mission that they would require months, maybe years, of intense therapy. In the worst cases, some parents were putting their biological children at risk.
Two families that adopted 11 of these children filed a lawsuit against Global International Ministries, the Pensacola-based mission agency of which the orphanage is a part, for allegedly allowing the founder, Keith Lashbrook, and the staff of In the Father’s Hands Children’s Home to physically abuse and molest their adopted children and others at the mission.
Globe denies any wrongdoing. The organization did an in-house investigation and found that some of the allegations were possibly true, but maintains that Keith Lashbrook is innocent.
Lashbrook, along with his wife Cindy, also claim innocence. According to their attorney the couple is planning to file a defamation suit against several of the parents.
Both Globe and the Lashbrooks distanced themselves from Vance Cherry, Lashbrook’s former brother-in-law who has been implicated in some of the charges. The parents, meanwhile, are hoping to get Globe to pay for therapy for the children.