Top 10 Stories Of 2017

Dec 22, 2017

We're counting down the top 10 local news stories of 2017. Each day, we'll post a new story. And we'll reveal RIPR's top story of 2017 on New Year's Day.

10. From rare solar eclipse to devastating hurricanes, Mother Nature captured headlines in 2017

Over the summer, thousands of excited New Englanders gathered in parks, public libraries and on college campuses to watch the moon pass in front of the sun. Eclipse-viewing glasses were in short supply, leading strangers to offer to share, so everyone could glimpse the rare sight.

But the excitement was short lived. Just days later, the first in a series of hurricanes barreled through the Atlantic. Houston experienced devastating floods, homes and buildings were destroyed, so were roads and trees.

One storm, Hurricane Maria, is considered the worst natural disaster on record in Puerto Rico. Refugees fled to the United States's mainland, causing cities like New Bedford to ask for state and federal assistance. When hurricane-strength winds hit the East Coast in October, tens of thousands were left without power for days.

Scientists say these storms may provide a clue as to the impact of intense storms that are expected to happen more often because of climate change.

9. Former Patriots Tight End Aaron Hernandez found to have severe case of CTE

The Patriots delighted fans by winning another Superbowl in 2017, but debate over players' right to kneel during the national anthem to protest racism, and questions about player safety clouded football.

Former Patriots Tight End Aaron Hernandez appeared to be a case in point.

Hernandez seemed to have it all. A fancy house, a $40-million contract with the New England Patriots and, as it turned out, one of the worst cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy researchers have ever seen in a man his age. 

The former tight end was convicted of murder in 2015 and sentenced to serve time in prison. He was only 27 when he hanged himself in April in his prison cell, a violent end to what had become a violent life.

An autopsy of his brain revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease caused by repeated head trauma over time. CTE can result in aggressive behavior, impaired judgment, and other cognitive issues. 

Researchers at Boston University said they had examined more than 400 brains, but even they were stunned by the atrophy and other damage to the brain of a man so young. They declined to attribute Hernandez’s behavior to CTE, but the evidence suggests a strong connection. Hernandez’s family has sued the Patriots and the NFL for $20 million. 

8. Former House Finance chairman pleads guilty to theft, Providence councilman accused of embezzlement

No year in local politics would be complete without a scandal or two, and 2017 was no exception.  The biggies include a budget stalemate, jail time for a Bristol state rep and a recall for a Providence politician accused of embezzlement.

The former chairman of House Finance Committee, Ray Gallison, got 51 months in prison after pleading guilty to stealing more than $600,000 from a deceased friend, a disabled individual and the IRS. But the Bristol rep was not the only Rhode Island politician in hot water.

Providence City Council President Luis Aponte stepped down from his leadership post after being indicted on charges of embezzlement and misusing campaign funds. And voters recalled the longest-serving Providence city councilor, Kevin Jackson, after he was charged in another embezzlement case. Aponte and Jackson are both awaiting trial.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers left Smith Hill without passing a budget in late June due to a dispute between the House and the Senate. It was almost three months later when they returned to finally approve a spending plan. 

7. CVS strikes deal to purchase Aetna

Big biz deals of 2017 included India-based tech firm Infosys, which announced plans to locate a new design hub in RI and hire 500 workers. Virgin Pulse opened a new HQ in Providence. And Woonsocket-based CVS inspired questions about the future of healthcare with a major merger.

CVS’s bid for health insurer Aetna is what some industry observers describe as the Amazon effect. What they mean is CVS needs to prepare for competition from online pharmacy sales with retailers like Amazon.

The $69 billion bid for Aetna would make CVS less reliant on its retail stores as it expands further into the insurance side of the business. CVS Chief Executive Larry Merlo says the two companies don’t have a lot of overlap, so he doesn’t expect big job losses. And Merlo says the company plans to keep its headquarters in Woonsocket.

That’s important to Rhode Island, where CVS employs about 8,000 people -- including about 5,300 at its Woonsocket headquarters.

6. New Bedford's "Codfather" sentenced to four years in federal prison

A scheme that Mother Jones magazine called “deliciously fishy” resulted in jail time for a New Bedford fishing magnate and shuttered New Bedford’s groundfish fishery, casting a lasting shadow over America’s most lucrative commercial fishing port. 

Carlos Rafael pleaded guilty to mislabeling fish, which he did to get around the quota system that is meant to protect species like cod. He also admitted to smuggling money to Portugal. In September, he was sentenced to nearly four years in prison.

But Rafael still owns a significant share of groundfishing permits and vessels that will likely draw headlines through the New Year. Federal fishing regulators banned an entire sector of fishing vessels because of its ties to Rafael. They say they want proof the sector has created new safeguards to prevent the rise of another “Codfather” figure.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell estimates about 80 fishermen are affected by the ban and argues supporting businesses will suffer too. Ports across the country want Rafael’s permits stripped and re-distributed to other fishermen affected by his overfishing in an industry facing plummeting stock. 

5. The Unified Health Infrastructure Project leaves many out in the cold

The project was supposed to improve efficiency and root out fraud in the state's public benefits system. Instead, it left thousands of Rhode Islanders waiting. They lined up for hours on the phone or in the cold, outside the Department of Human Services trying to get access to food stamps, health insurance and other public assistance. 

In the 15 months since it launched, the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP) has cost the state more than $400 million. It's the subject of a lawsuit by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and a federal judge has appointed a special master to oversee its operation.

As of the first week in December, an estimated 6,000 people were still waiting to get their benefits. 

4.  No breaks for Pawtucket during 2017

The city just north of Providence couldn’t seem to get a break in 2017. The seemingly endless debate over financing for a new PawSox stadium saw no resolution. State lawmakers waffled on the plan, leading Pawtucket mayor Don Grebien to warn this could send the minor league baseball team decamping for Massachusetts. 

Also in Pawtucket, Memorial Hospital announced it will shutter as its parent company seeks a merger with another hospital chain. The 300-bed hospital has lost millions in recent years.  And a major cultural attraction, the Gamm Theatre, made public the decision to leave for Warwick. The Gamm grew into a dramatic dynamo, since it moved to Pawtucket in 2003. As if that’s not enough, toy-maker Hasbro is also looking for a new headquarters. It’s unclear whether the company will stay in Pawtucket.  

3. The Benny's retail chain sells its final toaster and patio chair 

2017 was the year the beloved Benny’s chain shuttered its doors.

Benny’s was a magnet for generations of southern New England customers. The locally-owned discount retailer sold an eclectic mix of wares, from automotive supplies and batteries to school lunchboxes, t-shirts and Christmas lights.

To its devotees, Benny’s was as comfortable as an old shoe in the back of the closet. Some customers swore the stores had a unique fragrance – a hybrid of tires, motor oil and shiny bicycles.

The 31-store family-owned chain was 93 years old. It thrived through wars, recessions and societal changes. But Benny’s couldn’t survive competition from big box national retailers and the shift to Internet shopping.

Just after Thanksgiving, Benny’s owners announced the sale of its buildings to the Carpionato Group, a Rhode Island developer that plans to convert the stores into shops and restaurants.

2. A fatal police shooting claims the life of the wrong man  

Law enforcement was on the hunt for a man who stole a state police cruiser on the morning of Thursday, November 9th.  Acting on a tip, they tried to pull over a white pickup truck, but the driver refused to stop. Police gave chase.

The driver was Joseph Santos. He was not the suspect police were seeking, but had prior run-ins with the law. When he got stuck in traffic in Providence and tried to ram another car to get away, police fired a barrage of rounds, killing Santos and injuring his passenger.

They learned later that he was not the suspect in the theft of the police cruiser.

Santos's death raised questions about police use of deadly force, and investigations by the attorney general and the Providence Police are still ongoing. 

1. Rhode Island's #MeToo moment

In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein case, South Kingstown State Rep. Teresa Tanzi sent shockwaves through the Statehouse in October. That’s when Tanzi said a higher ranking lawmaker told her that her bills would go further if she provided sexual favors.

Tanzi declined to identify the legislator who she says harassed her. The four-term South Kingstown Democrat says it was more important to put systems in place to discourage harassment at the Statehouse. Legislative leaders responded with plans for new anti-harassment training. A commission is also expected to review the issue.

Inspired by the #MeToo campaign on Twitter and the presidency of Donald Trump, more women candidates are gearing up to run for office throughout the United States.