Joy rides, jewel heists and judicial coups: Overlooked stories from an overheated summer

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer
Richard Russell, Swedish crown jewels and the W.Va. Legislature. (Photos: YouTube/Handout via Reuters, Swedish Police via AP, Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

In a media environment that is increasingly fractured and generally driven by the Twitter account of President Trump, it is easy for stories to slip through the cracks. A story that would have generated days of coverage a few years ago can be wiped out of the news when special counsel Robert Mueller hands up an indictment or palace intrigue erupts at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. If you were off backpacking or even just in an airplane for a news cycle, or so busy posting pictures of your family reunion that you forgot to check your news feed, you could easily have missed some important (or amusing) news. Here are a few stories that deserved more coverage than they received.


Hurricane Maria death total

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in late September 2017, it devastated the island, knocking out the power grid and threatening the lives of the 3 million Americans who lived there. Officials on the island pleaded for help from the federal government as reports from the ground cited hospitals without power and crowded funeral homes, implying a far greater number of dead than the official tally of 64. When Trump visited the island in October, the toll was at 16 and he boasted that it was not a “real catastrophe” like 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which killed an estimated 1,833 in the mainland United States.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, center, led a protest over the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria during the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York on June 10. (Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP)

The official number of 64 was quietly revised up to 1,427 earlier this month. On Tuesday, a study by George Washington University commissioned by the Puerto Rican government raised the estimated death toll for the storm and its aftermath to 2,975. That was less than a Harvard study released in May, which put the number at 4,645. Either university study would make Maria the deadliest natural disaster in the United States in over a century.

The White House has not responded to the new figures. Trump originally gave his administration a score of 10 out of 10 on its response and urged Puerto Ricans not to believe the stories occurring on their own island. After the Harvard study was released earlier this summer, press secretary Sarah Sanders said the federal response had been of “historic proportions.”

Related slideshow: Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria >>>


Plane joy ride

On the evening of Friday, Aug. 10, Richard Russell, a 29-year-old ground crew employee for Horizon Air, went for an ill-fated joy ride around Seattle. Russell stole an otherwise empty 76-seat Bombardier Q400 from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and proceeded to do stunts in the air for nearly an hour, talking with the air traffic control officials while residents posted videos to social media of a commercial airliner doing loops above Puget Sound. The Air Force dispatched a pair of F-15 fighter jets to pursue the Q400 while flights in the area were grounded.

Richard Russell, who liked to be called Beebo, is seen in an undated photograph from a video he produced for his YouTube channel, obtained Aug. 11. (Photo: YouTube/Handout via Reuters)

Russell, who described himself to controllers as “a broken guy” with “a few screws loose,” said he wanted to see the Olympic Mountains and an orca whale that had been spotted carrying her dead calf. Controllers offered him the opportunity to land at a nearby military base, but he was concerned that the personnel there would “rough” him up. The plane eventually crashed into Ketron Island, about 25 miles from SeaTac, igniting into a blaze and killing Russell. Authorities said no one was injured on the sparsely inhabited island.

Russell’s family issued a statement saying they were “shocked and heartbroken” about what had happened with the man they referred to as a “faithful husband, loving son and good friend.” Investigators said Russell had access to secure areas at the airport and that they believe the plane was deliberately crashed.


The dealings of Wilbur Ross

With the president’s personal attorney pleading guilty to campaign finance violations and fraud, his former campaign manager found guilty on his own fraud charges and former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt resigning after a laundry list of graft and corruption allegations, accusations of less blatant corruption tended to be overlooked. That worked to the benefit of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a wealthy Wall Street investor.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies before a House committee on Capitol Hill on June 22. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

In June, the New York Times reported that Ross had bet against a shipping company’s stock shortly after the newspaper contacted him about a negative story. Ross denied the “unfounded allegations” of insider trading, but three congressional Democrats asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to launch an investigation into Ross’s deal.

Then in August, Forbes magazine published a story alleging that Ross had siphoned off or misappropriated funds from various companies and associates over the years, a few million dollars at a time, totaling more than $120 million. According to the article, which was based on interviews with nearly two dozen associates, “If even half of the accusations are legitimate, the current United States secretary of commerce could rank among the biggest grifters in American history.”


Antwon Rose in Pittsburgh

 The police killing of 17-year-old Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh on June 19 resulted in massive protests across Pittsburgh and criminal charges filed against the officer responsible. Rose was a passenger in a car being sought in connection with a June 19 drive-by shooting. When police pulled the car over and began to arrest the driver, Rose and the other passenger took off running. Rose, who was unarmed, was shot three times, including once in the back. Rose died later that night at a local hospital. A video of the shooting was uploaded to Facebook where you can hear the woman filming ask, “Why are they shooting? All they did was run, and they’re shooting at them.”

Protesters angry about the killing of Antwon Rose cross Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente Bridge during an evening rush hour march on June 22. (Photo: Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Protests took place for days following Rose’s death, shutting down major roads. At a rally outside PNC Park during a Pirates game, a car plowed into a group of marchers, injuring two. The East Pittsburgh officer responsible for the shooting, Michael Rosfeld, was charged with criminal homicide. The district attorney said after the indictment that Rosfeld made inconsistent statements about whether or not Rose had a gun. Earlier this month the Rose family filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against East Pittsburgh city officials claiming that they did not adequately train their police force.


Stormy Daniels sting

For what is believed to be the first time in U.S. history, the vice squad of a local police department inserted itself into a scandal involving a self-described former paramour of a sitting president. Or maybe it happened before, but not this way: a sting operation meant to entrap the woman while she was performing at a strip club. A month before Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, in connection with a payment to actress Stormy Daniels intended to buy her silence about her alleged liaison with Trump, the Columbus, Ohio, Police Department arrested her for touching undercover officers at Sirens Gentlemen’s Club.

Stormy Daniels’s mug shot and a frame from video of the adult-film actress being led into jail in Columbus, Ohio. (Photos: Franklin County Sheriff’s Office via AP, WBNS via AP)

Columbus police initially said the arrest was part of a larger anti-human-trafficking operation, but emails later revealed that it had been planned to specifically target Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. The police chief said a “mistake was made” and charges were dropped, with Daniels performing at a different Columbus strip club the following night. Making it an ever rougher month for the Columbus Police Department, the public affairs officer for the department was indicted shortly after the Daniels incident on child pornography charges.


Wildfires and record heat

The wildfires raging across California drew a great deal of attention — although it came as a surprise to many people to learn that the state was paying prison laborers $1 an hour to fight the fires — but there were other calamitous climatic events across the globe. In the Greek village of Mati, the deadliest wildfire in Europe since 1900 killed at least 91, some dying in the flames and others drowning as they tried to escape in the sea. Further north, fires burned in Sweden, stretching above the Arctic Circle. In the United Kingdom, the heat wave scorched the earth to a degree that previously undiscovered ancient settlements were revealed. In Central Europe, water levels dipped so low that “hunger stones” were revealed at the bottom of the Elbe River. The stones were meant to warn people that hard times were coming, and the oldest, dated to 1616, reads “When you see me, cry” in German.

Firefighters carry a forest fire victim near Mati, Greece. (Photo: John Liakos/Intime/AthenaPictures/REX/Shutterstock )

In addition to the wildfires, the oldest and thickest arctic sea ice began to break apart earlier this month for the time ever. Meanwhile, all-time record highs were set across the world earlier this summer, from Los Angeles to Glasgow, Scotland.

Related slideshow: Deadly wildfires ravage coastal region near Athens, killing dozens >>>


A coup in West Virginia?

Citing excessive spending on office renovations and furniture, the West Virginia House of Delegates began impeachment proceedings for the four elected judges on the Supreme Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. The court comprised two Democrats and two Republicans (after the resignation of a fifth member in July), but their interim replacements would be chosen by Gov. Jim Justice, who was elected as a Democrat but then switched parties. Republicans also control the legislature.

Lawmakers deliver articles of impeachment to the state Senate against all the sitting justices on the state’s highest court, Aug. 20. (Photo: Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

The impeachment charges were based on the expenses the judges incurred in remodeling their offices and their authorization of allegedly excessive compensation for retired circuit judges who sat in for them. The fifth justice, a Democrat, resigned before pleading guilty for using a state-owned car to go golfing. Another, Democrat Robin Davis, resigned hours after the impeachment vote so that her seat could be up for election in November, accusing lawmakers of a partisan coup.

“When a legislative body attempts to dismantle a separate branch of government, the immediate effects as well as the precedent it sets for the future can only be deemed disastrous,” Davis said. “The will of the people of West Virginia is being denied.”

Charges that the impeachments were a partisan attack by Republicans in power were further inflamed by the governor’s choices to temporarily fill two empty seats: statehouse Speaker Tim Armstead and Rep. Evan Jenkins, both Republican politicians. Judges are elected to 12-year terms, but if the sitting justices are removed the seats would be filled by temporary appointees through 2020.


Heist roundup

This summer also brought a spate of heists of varying degrees of complexity.

* In the most cinematic heist of the group, two thieves made off with Swedish royal jewels. Smashing an alarmed showcase in a cathedral outside Stockholm, the men took three 17th century royal artifacts, two crowns and an orb. Their method of escape? A speedboat across Lake Malaren.

Swedish police say thieves took these two crowns and one of the orbs. (Photo: Swedish Police via AP)

* Owing to its use in lithium ion batteries, the price of cobalt has risen significantly over the past two years. This fact didn’t escape a team of criminals in Rotterdam, Netherlands, who jacked 112 metric tons of the metal from a warehouse there. At market prices, that haul is worth nearly $10 million.

* Prosecutors charged a Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh archivist and an antiquarian bookseller with “cannibalizing” just over $8 million in rare books and maps over a 20-year span. The most valuable item stolen, which has been recovered, was a copy of Sir Isaac Newton’s “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” valued at $900,000.

* In Fayette County, Georgia, an unknown number of thieves stole a 53-foot trailer from a Chevron station that contained $98,000 worth of ramen noodles.


Child separation policy

One story that received plenty of deserved attention earlier this summer was the Trump administration’s policy change that resulted in children being separated from their parents. There were discussions of civility in the face of caged children — Is it appropriate to politely ask a White House press secretary to leave your restaurant? Should you heckle the Homeland Security chief at a Mexican restaurant? — followed by the White House eventually relenting and reversing its policy as a judge ordered the families to be reunited.

While the story that dominated the headlines and cable news chyrons in June faded, families remain separated due to the White House policy. As of this week, 497 children were still separated, including 22 who are younger than 5.

Occupants at Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for unaccompanied minors, in Brownsville, Texas, in June. (Photo: ACF/HHS/Handout via Reuters)

Related slideshow: Thousands march nationwide in ‘Families Belong Together’ protests against Trump’s immigration policies >>>


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