The observation of novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne that “time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind” foretold the pall that trailed events affecting La Plata County in the year that ends Wednesday.
Six of the top 10 stories in The Durango Herald this year – as measured by online visits – dealt with death. A seventh concerned the rumored presence in Durango of a man once suspected of a double murder.
The remaining three told of a highway closure, the demise of an iconic restaurant and the heroics to save the life of a roller derby skater.
If you don’t like the online measurement, look at what the Herald newsroom staff deemed top stories of the year, or look at the results of an online reader poll in which readers selected their own.
The 2014 online top 10
No. 1. A Durango businessman, the owner of a P-51 Mustang, the U.S. scourge of the skies during World War II, and his flight instructor were killed July 4 when the vintage aircraft crashed upon taking off from the Durango-La Plata County Airport.
John Earley, chief executive officer of Saddle Butte Pipeline LLC, was learning to fly the Mustang, one of 123 in the country, with the help of Michael Schlarb, a longtime local flight instructor.
No. 2. Former Durango residents Karen and Rick Langhart in February denounced a $100 million offer from drugmaker Merck to settle a class-action lawsuit by 3,800 plaintiffs involving NuvaRing, a method of birth control linked to heart attacks and strokes.
The Langharts’ daughter, Erika, died at age 24 after two heart attacks in 2011. She used NuvaRing. The Langharts said accepting the settlement, which required 95 percent acceptance to be effective, allowed Merck to escape responsibility. They want Merck held accountable for their daughter’s death in a jury trial.
No. 3. The suicide of Escalante Middle School counselor Chad Novak in September brought countywide mourning. Novak, who came to Durango School District 9-R in 1999, held various positions at Miller Middle School as well as at Escalante.
Forty-eight professional grief counselors made themselves available to the public at a community gathering at Escalante. Counselors remained on call for parents or students who suffered delayed reaction to Novak’s death.
No. 4. Three people were killed in a July head-on vehicle collision near the entrance to the Glacier Club about 14 miles north of Durango on U.S. Highway 550. Three other people were transported to Mercy Regional Medical Center.
The driver of a southbound black Toyota Avalon sedan crossed the center line into the far northbound lane, striking a silver-colored Nissan Xterra head-on. Two passengers in the Avalon, one from Delta and one from Olathe, and a passenger in the Xterra, 91-year-old Ruth Shields of Durango, were killed.
No. 5. The widely rumored presence in Durango of a man once indicted for – but never convicted of – two 1996 murders in Virginia brought a request for calm from law-enforcement officials in June.
The man in question spent 10 years in prison for a 1997 abduction in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and later two years for probation violations.
Durango police and La Plata County Sheriff’s officials asked residents to cool it. The man did his time, and if he remains well-behaved, he has every right to be in the county, they said.
No. 6. A practice session for the Durango Roller Girls had just begun in July when Abbey “Machete” Smith fell but didn’t get up. She’d had a heart attack.
Four team members, all nurses, administered CPR, keeping Smith alive until emergency medics arrived. At Mercy Regional Medical Center, Smith was placed in a medically induced coma for four days. She spent more than two weeks total in the hospital.
Smith’s future as a Durango Roller Girls member was not immediately clear. She has a defibrillator for her heart.
No. 7. A Silverton man is in La Plata County jail on suspicion of stabbing his wife, Jessica McFarland, to death in June. The killing was the first in the town of some 600 in nearly 30 years.
Husband Michael McFarland, facing a second-degree murder charge, was arrested without incident the same day. The stabbing occurred at the couple’s home. McFarland is in La Plata County jail because San Juan County doesn’t have a jail.
No. 8. Francisco’s Restaurante y Cantina, a landmark on Main Avenue for 46 years, closed without explanation in November.
The restaurant was bought in 2013 from Francis and Claudine Garcia, who owned the establishment since 1968. The purchasers, a Santa Fe couple, no longer are in the picture, Francis Garcia said in November, with no further explanation.
No. 9. The story of Dylan Redwine, the then-13-year-old boy who disappeared in November 2012 while on a court-ordered visit to his father in Vallecito, was featured in June on the Denver Post’s Cold Case Blog.
Post staff writer Kirk Mitchell chose Dylan’s story after his father, Mark Redwine, was placed on a 12-hour mental-health hold while in Denver in May.
The case drew attention from national media figures, including Nancy Grace and Dr. Phil. Bone fragments, identified as belonging to Dylan, were found in June 2013 near Vallecito. No one has been charged in the case.
No. 10. Red Mountain Pass on U.S. Highway 550 between Ouray and Silverton was closed by falling rock Jan. 12. Quick fixes didn’t work, and the pass was closed or cut to one lane several times until mid-June when full, two-way traffic was restored.
In the interim, travelers were inconvenienced. Driving from Silverton to Montrose, a distance of 60 miles with Red Mountain open, required a trip of 200 miles. The driver would head south from Silverton to Durango, take U.S. Highway 160 to Mancos, swing north through Dolores, then over Lizard Head Pass to Montrose.
Stabilizing terrain to allow safe travel involved removal of loose rock, installation of 33,000 square feet of wire mesh to contain remaining debris and constructing a rockfall fence at midslope below the mesh.
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In addition to the stories above, four other stories caught the eye of The Durango Herald newsroom staff and the public via a poll on our website.
Among five stories chosen by the newsroom staff that weren’t on the most-read list were:
La Plata County Sheriff Duke Schirard’s bid for a sixth term was derailed by Sean Smith, one of his deputies. The contest pitted an old-timer standing on his record against a man with a new approach. Schirard’s outspokenness may have turned off former supporters.
The owners of Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort agreed to sell the resort to James H. Coleman Jr., a Durango resident who has ownership interests in New Mexico ski resorts and a commitment to buy a ski resort in Arizona.
The theft and subsequent return of a realistic dinosaur head from a sculpture at the U.S. Highway 550/160 intersection that garnered national attention, including a mention on National Public Radio. The series of events surrounding the dinosaur head only added luster to the controversy over whether the sculpture, Arc of History, was art and whether it was worth the $28,000 the city of Durango paid for it.
The two stories selected in the public poll that differed from the 10 most-read were the dinosaur head and the legal sale of marijuana in Durango. Voters statewide approved the sale of recreational marijuana in November 2012. But Durango city councilors were a cautious lot, not accepting applications for retail marijuana sales until July 1.