From stories that captured national headlines (the Malheur occupation, Hermiston murder-suicide, naked intruder caught in a tree) to hyper-local milestones (completion of the EOTEC event center and two new Pendleton schools), 2016 kept us busy.
What follows is our selection of the biggest news stories of the year in the pages of the East Oregonian, based on regional relevance, historic significance and reader interest.
1. Standoff at the wildlife refuge
Ammon Bundy, joined by his brother Ryan and a small band of followers, took a “hard stand” against federal control of Western lands and the imprisonment of two ranchers. They seized the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Harney County and spent weeks in a slow-motion standoff with authorities.
For 41 days the state’s attention was on the remote bird sanctuary, and the nearby town of Burns was divided between those standing by the occupiers and those demanding the out-of-state armed protesters to leave.
The Bundys were arrested in a Jan. 26 traffic stop that included the fatal shooting by police of occupation spokesman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum as he exited his vehicle at a road block and attempted to draw his gun. Two vehicles were headed north on their way to a public meeting in John Day, where a mostly sympathetic crowd had gathered at the community center.
After Bundy’s arrest and Finicum’s death, many of the remaining protesters left the refuge, but four holdouts remained until a tense standoff Feb. 11 that ended peacefully.
The occupation, which lasted 41 days, heightened the debate over public land management in Western states.
Eleven men pleaded guilty ahead of a fall trial that ended with the surprise acquittals of the Bundy brothers and five co-defendants. In an explosive ending, a team of federal marshals tackled defense lawyer Marcus Mumford as he yelled at the judge. Paperwork flew as Ammon Bundy’s attorney writhed on the ground, screaming.
The year closed with some defendants trying to withdraw their guilty pleas and government prosecutors pressing ahead with a February 2017 trial for seven remaining defendants.
2. Murder-suicide shocks Hermiston
Hermiston was shaken by a brutal crime that claimed three lives and left another person wounded in August.
On Aug. 18, Jason Huston, 45, killed 14-year-old James “JJ” Hurtado at a remote location near the Umatilla River outside of Hermiston before driving into town and kicking in the door of high school friend and fellow wrestling coach Kenneth Valdez, also 45. He entered the bedroom, killed Valdez and wounded Hurtado’s mother Andria Bye before calling 9-1-1 to report the shooting and then turning the gun on himself.
Police, friends and family — knowing only that Hurtado had last been seen with Huston — searched desperately for the teenager, who had been set to begin his freshman year at Hermiston High School, over the course of several hours before finding his body.
Huston and Bye had previously dated and Huston had remained a father figure to Hurtado, but Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston said it is likely no one will ever know for sure Huston’s motives that day.
After the shootings hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil for Hurtado and Valdez at McKenzie Park, while others started a scholarship in Hurtado’s name, collected donations for the families and started the “I Love My City” campaign to perform positive acts of service in the community.
3. Boardman tree farm felled
The Boardman Tree Farm is getting the ax to make way for more conventional crops and, possibly, a second mega-dairy in Morrow County.
GreenWood Resources, which has owned the 25,000-acre poplar tree farm since 2007, agreed in January to sell most of the land to AgriNorthwest, a farming company based in the Tri-Cities, to grow wheat, corn and potatoes. The remaining trees will be harvested as they become mature and ready for processing.
One-third of the property also sold to California dairyman Greg te Velde, who is proposing a 30,000-cow dairy east of where Homestead Lane intersects with Poleline Road. However, the state must first approve a confined animal feeding operation, or CAFO, permit which regulates how the operation would handle wastewater and manure generated on site. More than 2,300 comments have been submitted so far, mostly in opposition of the project.
Don Rice, director of North American operations for GreenWood Resources, said it could take several years to finish milling all the trees. He said the decision to sell was met with mixed emotions, as the tree farm has become a captivating landmark for visitors and photographers along Interstate 84.
“A Very Poplar Run,” a 5K and 10K race to benefit the Agape House in Hermiston, was held for the final time in October. The Collins Companies also permanently shut down its Upper Columbia Mill, with most of the facility’s 67 employees laid off in September.
4. EOTEC opens in Hermiston
After years of planning and millions of dollars in public and private investment, construction was completed on the first building of the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center in May.
The event center started hosting events soon after, giving a glimpse of the project’s potential after frustrations over construction delays and budget overruns.
The project’s fundraising committee finished its goal of raising an additional $2 million in private donations during 2016 while the EOTEC board chose contractors for the other major components and began discussing what the operating budget and staffing for the center will look like.
Construction on the rodeo arena — future home of the Farm-City Pro Rodeo — began in the fall, and contractor G2 Construction placed an order for the prefabricated metal buildings that will make up the barns used for the Umatilla County Fair starting (if all goes well) in 2017.
5. Pot sales pass in Pendleton
2016 was a comeback year for pot in Pendleton.
After the Pendleton City Council nearly banned marijuana sales in 2015, local voters resoundingly passed local ballot measures legalizing recreational and medical marijuana sales as well as a 3 percent tax on marijuana products in the November election.
In December, two prospective businesses filed with the city for a license to open shops in town.
Opening a pot shop won’t come cheap. Citing the costs of background checks and tax collection, the council approved $1,550 and $600 business licensing fees for recreational and medical marijuana, respectively.
Pendleton High School students launched a Twitter campaign in January to get a beloved teacher on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
Spanish teacher Kathryn Youngman, who was fighting cancer for the third time, had long admired the comedienne for her positivity. Youngman frequently encourages her students to be kind.
The hashtag trended with tweets originating around the world. A producer finally invited the teacher and family members to fly to Los Angeles and observe an “Ellen” taping. During the show, DeGeneres approached Youngman in the audience for an on-the-air conversation about attitude and facing challenges.
The day the show aired, Youngman spent the morning in chemotherapy, but made it home in time to watch the show. The teacher has since finished treatments and is back to teaching full-time.
7. Naked intruder survives river leap
A naked home invader found himself hanging from a tree by his foot after fleeing police and falling off a cliff.
On March 5, Steven Burton, 30, entered the Pendleton home of Gail Wilson, who has muscular dystrophy and was sitting in a living room chair eating soup. The naked Hermiston man grinned at Wilson and tried to give her a hug. Wilson, fearing rape or murder, managed to call 9-1-1 when Burton dragged the family’s affectionate Labrador retriever into a back room.
When Burton heard police arrive, he dashed away. He scaled a cyclone fence and plunged off the side of a 40- or 50-foot bluff that borders the Umatilla River near the Riverside Bridge. Officers found the apparently drug-intoxicated man at the bottom, his left ankle wedged in a tree and his head about five feet from the bank.
Rescuers finally dislodged the combative man, secured him on a stretcher and took him to St. Anthony Hospital, Pendleton. Burton faced charges of burglary, harassment, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
The story, and photo that accompanied it, was republished in media around the world.
Umatilla County Circuit Court records show Burton took a deal in April and pleaded guilty to burglary, resisting arrest and harassment and agreed to go through drug court. He had nine hearings in the drug diversion program and made each one. His next is Feb. 10.
8. A violent start to the year
Four murders in the first half of 2016 marked the year as the most violent in recent Umatilla County history.
Thadd Nelson, 44, died from gunshot wounds the morning of Jan. 27 at his property in Meacham.
Joseph Aaron McIver of Umatilla and Edward Duarte Ayala and Armando Ruben Vargas, who were new to Hermiston, face federal weapons charges stemming from Nelson’s homicide. Vargas also faces federal assault charges.
Umatilla County District Attorney Dan Primus charged McIver on Jan. 28 with Nelson’s murder, then dropped the case days later when federal prosecutors indicted McIver and his co-defendants.
The federal trial for McIver, Ayala and Vargas begins May 16 in Portland pending delays. Primus said he could bring back the murder charge after the federal case concludes.
Federal prosecutors charged Julian Darryl Simpson, 23, with murder and gun crimes for shooting and killing Tony Jimenez, 27, the morning of March 19 at the home of Beau Welch on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Co-defendant Victor Joseph Contreras faces assault and gun charges for shooting and injuring Welch.
Federal Judge Anna J. Brown set their trial to begin Feb. 7 in Portland.
Oscar Pastor Garcia Villegas, 26, of Milton-Freewater, faces murder and related charges for the May 26 stabbing death of his wife, Maria Villegas, 24. The state also accused Oscar Villegas of trying to stab and murder their two young children.
Circuit Judge Lynn Hampton on Dec. 21 sent Villegas to the Oregon State Hospital, Salem, to undergo a mental health evaluation. His next court date is Jan. 24 in Pendleton.
And the state charged Evan Freel, 17, of Milton-Freewater with murder by abuse and first-degree criminal mistreatment in the June 8 death of his infant son. Freel also is to undergo an evaluation at the state hospital. Circuit Judge Christopher Brauer set a hearing for Feb. 15 in Pendleton to discuss the next steps in the case.
9. SeaPort bankrupt, Boutique flies in
A year’s worth of bad news for Pendleton’s commercial air provider meant Round-Up City residents went without air service for three months.
Following SeaPort Airlines’ February decision to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that it would strip Pendleton of its Essential Air Service subsidy unless it could convincingly assure the agency that the airport could improve its flagging boarding numbers.
Despite public statements of support for SeaPort, the city council selected Boutique Air of San Francisco in August, causing SeaPort to cease flight operations in September while it began liquidating its assets.
After the city successfully appealed the DOT to hold onto its EAS subsidy, Boutique re-started air service from Pendleton to Portland Dec. 19.
10. Two new Pendleton schools
With the beat of tribal drums and the cutting of ribbons at grand opening ceremonies, the Pendleton School District fulfilled a promise it made to taxpayers in 2013.
The district opened the new Washington and Sherwood Heights elementary schools to students in September, completing the centerpieces of a $55 million bond.
Besides replacing aging facilities that were starting to fail, the new Washington and Sherwood Heights schools have modern security systems, separate rooms for the gym, cafeteria and music classes, and a shared space for each grade level for group work.
The new facilities, which cost $17 million each, allowed the district to consolidate Lincoln Primary School and West Hills Intermediate School.
The district moved its central office to the old Lincoln building and West Hills will become the Pendleton Tech and Trade Center in January.