Charleston's top news stories of 2007 

They Keep Going and Going: City Paper looks back at the year's top 10 stories and where they're headed in '08

click to enlarge State and Federal agents Pause in their investigation of the Sofa Super Store in June as the memorial for the nine fallen fire fighters passes through West Ashley - JOSHUA CURRY
  • State and Federal agents Pause in their investigation of the Sofa Super Store in June as the memorial for the nine fallen fire fighters passes through West Ashley

It's easy to say what 2007 will be remembered for in Charleston. But plucking June 18 out of the calendar still leaves a banner year for scandals and surprises in the Holy City. The FBI looked into allegations of bribery involving a Mt. Pleasant developer and town council, and PETA went undercover at Mepkin Abbey to highlight the alleged mistreatment of its chickens. Preservationists and developers fretted over the sale of the Mendel Rivers Building, while Magnolia plodded along the slow road of development. And those are just the honorable mentions. Here's a look at 10 of the biggest stories in Charleston in 2007 that people will still be talking about in 2008.

10 The YouTube Skater

This spot could have just as easily been filled with Miss Teen South Carolina's stumbling answer regarding why people can't find America on a map, but we decided to go with a YouTube phenomenon that hit even closer to home.

Last March, a year-old video of city police officer Willie Simmons pushing a skateboarder into a bush at Waterfront Park had the video-sharing site buzzing and put skateboarder Corey Dowds on national news programs.

After investigating the incident, the city suspended Simmons for two weeks. "She made a mistake," said Mayor Joe Riley. "There is no circumstance when the city will condone an officer using extreme force."

Right Now: The incident prompted boarders to organize Pour It Now and lobby for a second skate park more convenient to downtown (the existing skate park is in West Ashley) and have held fund-raisers to pay for it.

click to enlarge Ahmed Abdellatif Sherif Mohamed faces charges for carrying explosives across state lines and creating a YouTube video with instructions on making bombs
  • Ahmed Abdellatif Sherif Mohamed faces charges for carrying explosives across state lines and creating a YouTube video with instructions on making bombs

9 The Trunk "Bomb"

It had already been a busy summer for local reporters, but the Aug. 4 arrest of two Egyptian-born students in Goose Creek for having incendiary devices in their car sent some reporters groaning about one local calamity too many. Reportedly traveling between Tampa, Fla., and North Carolina, Youssef Samir Megahed and Ahmed Abdellatif Sherif Mohamed told officers there were "fireworks" in the trunk, which turned out to be explosives. They were charged in federal court in Tampa for carrying explosives over state lines. There was an additional terrorism-related charge for Mohamed after an instruction video posted on YouTube was found on his laptop that showed him creating a homemade bomb out of a toy boat.

Right Now: A third University of South Florida student from Morocco was arrested for violating his student visa Dec. 13, due to photos found on Megahed's computer of the three at a firing range in July. The trial for Mohamed and Megahed, set in Tampa, has been delayed to March to give the FBI more time to analyze evidence.

8 Smoking Ban

It was this time last year that Henry Fishburne and Paul Tinkler (who will both leave City Council in Jan. 2008) were pushing through a smoking ban for any indoor business in the city except for Club Habana, the city's only smoking bar. The pair had tried time and again to get the issue addressed by council, but the will wasn't there for it until last year. Once final approval was given to the ordinance in January, bar owners began to fret over the impact of throwing their patrons to the street to get their nicotine fix. The results are seemingly mixed. Bar owners are still unhappy and smokers are huddled in the streets, but it's clear skies in Charleston's smokiest bars and it's not such a bad thing when you wake up the next morning and don't get sick off the smell of your clothes.

Right Now: A case brought against the city and suits against Sullivan's Island for a similar ban have yet to work through the courts. Beverage distributor ABC Stores of S.C. is handing out large postcards for concerned voters to send to state legislators calling for a state solution that allows smoking in 21-and-over bars, but the legislature could sit out this fight, particularly in an election year.

7 "Dr. Maria" Quits

The evident defeat of Arthur Ravenel's conservative slate of school board candidates in November 2006 was seen largely as an endorsement of Maria Goodloe-Johnson's "Plan for Excellence." But it turned out just five months later that there were bigger scholastic messes in the sea of American public education for "Dr. Maria." In early April, the Seattle School District selected Goodloe-Johnson as the first educator to run the district since 1995.

Goodloe-Johnson had been dogged by opposition on the school board and in the community — first, for getting pregnant before she was married, and then for her reform plans critics said weren't providing results fast enough. With the opposition on the school board thinned from five to three, it seemed the political battles were behind her, but Goodloe-Johnson still took the job in Seattle. When School Board member Ray Toler told her she would have a tough job in Seattle, Goodloe-Johnson shot back, "You prepared me well." Chief Academic Officer Nancy McGinley was swiftly named as a replacement and has set out to update the "Plan for Excellence" and follow through on Goodloe-Johnson's plans to reform peninsula schools.

Right Now: It turns out that Toler was right. Goodloe-Johnson has been forced to tread into some unfamiliar waters with a teachers union that questions whether her reform plans will be good for its members. The issue of racial disparity has popped up on the West Coast as well, with a recent report that Seattle's gifted programs tend to overlook poor and minority students. McGinley has only faced a few hurdles in her first six months, most noticeably the canceling of some field trips.

6 Al Parish's Boondoggling Amnesia

Al Parish was the Lowcountry's go-to economist for more than a decade before federal agents found in April that he was spending investor money on personal luxuries like leopard print cars, worthless art, and 200 yard gnomes (including a series depicting the founding fathers). In October, Parish pleaded guilty to charges of securities fraud with more than $50 million missing from up to 650 investors. Parish at first claimed amnesia, telling federal investigators that he didn't know why anyone would trust him with their money. "I've been doing this for some time, and this is a first," said Bill Hicks, regional trial counsel for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Parish's stuff was eventually auctioned off, but at a sizeable discount compared to the dollars lost in Parish's lavish spending.

Right Now: Parish's fall has led to questions about his other economic advice. The Coastal Conservation League, looking for its silver bullet to stop a new port site in North Charleston, raised questions in November regarding Parish's estimates on job growth due to the project. His wife, Yolanda Yoder, has been shielded from prosecution as a result of a legal treaty.

5 Mayoral Candidate Shoot-out

It's hard to break into politics. It's typically all about who you know (President Bush II) or what you've done (The Terminator). But Omar Brown had the more lofty aspiration of unseating Charleston's life-long mayor, Joe Riley. Brown hoped his experience as a beat cop in some of the city's toughest neighborhoods and his commanding presence would transform his modest campaign. While that didn't work, an October gas-station shoot-out provided all the media attention a campaign could hope for. The story goes that Brown was exiting a Dorchester Road gas station in North Charleston when he bumped into parole violator Antonio Rivers, who took offense. Brown left the store and sat in his car as Rivers stormed off to his vehicle and came back with what appeared to be a gun behind his back. Brown jumped out of his car and shots rang out. Rivers ended up taking five bullets to his back. Brown took one to his thigh. Both walked away from the confrontation.

Right Now: During the campaign, Brown complained that he was kept from promotions because he wouldn't cut breaks for the children of his bosses. The claims were investigated by the department, but no proof was found. Brown's support at the polls barely registered, but the shoot-out provided a little spice to the latest inevitable Riley win.

4 Environmental Alert

South Carolina may be getting coal in its stocking next year, depending on the outcome of a few key battles over DHEC permits. Multi-billion dollar energy-supply company Kinder Morgan, a start-up of two Texans who bailed from the S.S. Enron before it sank, has filed a permit request to build a 20-acre coal pile on the Cooper River at Shipyard Creek. In their decade-long residency in Charleston, they've already been subject to multiple environmental fines. They made news this year when their existing pile repeatedly dusted the private boats at Cooper River Marina. DHEC's hearings about the permitting process attracted over 100 concerned citizens, worried that new coal trains will block traffic in North Charleston and spread coal dust over neighborhoods.

Up the road in Florence County, state-owned utility Santee Cooper has proposed building a new 600-megawatt coal plant on the Little Pee Dee River. The site lies smack in the middle of the "Mercury Triangle," an area of dangerously high mercury levels in water. National and local organizations have rallied for and against the plant, the pros crying "Economy!" while opponents ask, "WTF?"

Right Now: Kinder Morgan was responsible for several oil spills and pipe breaks nationwide this year, and was convicted of six felonies in one California accident, but they're still rockin' the Alfred E. Neumann "What, me worry?" here in friendly South Carolina. And as the State Ports Authority moves ahead with their plans to build a new terminal at the old Navy Base, bringing even more diesel-spewing ships into the harbor, we may all be asking for inhalers next year to go with our black, coal-filled lungs.

click to enlarge The Democratic canidates in July for the CNN/YouTube debates. Can you tell who's missing? Hell, there's probably a few in the picture you don't know (A: Mike Gravel)
  • The Democratic canidates in July for the CNN/YouTube debates. Can you tell who's missing? Hell, there's probably a few in the picture you don't know (A: Mike Gravel)

3 Democrats Debate

South Carolina's rock star status as the Ringo Starr of early voting states has been well documented in the past year, but most of the attention has centered on the state capital and the conservative Upstate. But for one week in July, Charleston was the star. The State Democratic Party hosted the CNN/YouTube debates at The Citadel (the only venue on the peninsula that could possibly fit the event). It was the first of its kind with every question stemming from videos submitted by voters (and snowmen).

And the party! Oh, the party! Google hosted a bash at the bus shed with theme rooms, celebrity appearances, and schwag that was either free or easily stolen. There was even a real grass floor in one "room." Every party before and since has been shamed.

Right Now: Candidates and their campaigns are hunkering down for the final stretch, with Iowans voting on Jan. 3 and New Hampshire weighing in Jan. 8. Attention will turn to South Carolina's Dem primary Jan. 26.

2 Thomas Ravenel Coke Bust

On June 19, State Treasurer Thomas Ravenel was indicted for handing out cocaine to his friends. He was rushed off to rehab, while the drug dealer who helped nab him was locked up in the county jail. Ravenel came back refreshed, claiming that he wasn't a drug addict but had suffered from problems stemming from his parents' divorce. Ravenel resigned his position and returned to Charleston. A third suspect, local wine expert Pasquale Pellicoro fled to Europe. Speculation has swirled in Charleston over who the lucky "friends" were and who would be implicated in plea deals by Ravenel and his dealer, Michael L. Miller of Mt. Pleasant. While The Post and Courier has covered the necessary events in the case, coverage has been less than thorough, and the entire saga has been all-but ignored by the editorial page.

Right Now: Miller was arrested in December for striking a police officer. Ravenel's sentencing will likely be in January. His lawyers have requested probation, but prosecutors will likely save the get-out-of-jail card until Ravenel provides the golden goose.

1 The Charleston Nine

On June 18, nine Charleston firemen entered the Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway to battle a blaze that had started on the furniture store's back deck and unknowingly spread to the trussed roof above them. In minutes, the firefighters would get lost in the smoke and heat of the building as the roof caved in on top of them. It was the worst firefighter fatality since Sept. 11. Support flooded in from around the nation, with millions of dollars going to the families of the lost firefighters.

"We will never be the same," said Mayor Joe Riley at the memorial. "We may not be firefighters, but the lessons they gave us were even more about life. Courage, duty, and service. They inspire us today. They will inspire the community for all the days to come. All the while they are resting in eternal peace."

After the firemen were buried, questions arose about the lack of sprinklers at the store and the fire department's questionable protocols at the scene. Riley initiated an independent review of the city's fire department that led to more than 200 recommendations on staffing, equipment, and policies. In endorsing all of the recommendations, the city vowed to be a national model in fighting fires.

Right Now: Federal and state investigations continue. Two families have sued the store for negligence in not preventing the fire. Store owners have begun clearing the debris and have yet to respond to the city's request to buy the property.


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