The Top 10: Say goodbye to 2021 by remembering the biggest stories of the year

When we left 2020, we urged our readers to carry their resilience and giving spirit into 2021 as the pandemic continued to weigh on our minds and hearts. No one knew just how much that would be needed as we navigated 2021.

There are many ways to describe this past year, and although we had hoped for an easier path, 2021 proved to be anything but that.

We continued to see the repercussions of a COVID-19 pandemic that affected every community resident in a multitude of ways — deaths, illness, loss of employment, closing of businesses, food insecurity and more.

Even with that, we saw the “helpers” step forward to try to alleviate the chaos in any way they could.

We donated food and money to help our neighbors, and invented ways to come together through computer technology for fellowship, worship and encouragement.

We honored our doctors, nurses, first responders, front-line workers and teachers with support and thanks, as they continued to show up for long shifts and no breaks to care for those who needed it.

Local residents volunteered to distribute food to long lines of hungry families waiting in cars; no matter the weather.

In nearly every aspect of life, as a community, we had to work together to find new ways to still be a community while attempting to protect others, particularly the most vulnerable in our midst.

We now enter the year 2022 in somewhat of a worse situation than we entered 2021. Cases of the omicron and delta variant are sweeping across the nation and our state.

And as we said the year before, here is what we have learned — we are stronger, more resilient, more agile, more creative and braver than we were a year ago. Don’t forget to take some of that with you as we turn the page to this new year.

Here are the Top 10 stories of 2021, as selected by Republic editors and reporters.

1. COVID, COVID, COVID

The impact of COVID-19 on Bartholomew County was the No. 1 news story of 2021. Bartholomew County entered the second year of the pandemic amid the worst wave of sickness and death in at least a century. But there was a glimmer of hope: more and more doses of life-saving vaccines were flowing into the community.

CRH opened a standalone vaccination clinic near its hospital campus and administered 41,430 vaccine doses — enough to fully vaccinate 20,715 people — by late July. Mass vaccination clinics were held at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds and elsewhere.

As the year went on, masks started coming off, capacity restrictions at restaurants and stores were lifted and pandemic restrictions eased. Officials were “cautiously optimistic” as virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths dropped to new lows — on July 1, there were no COVID-19 hospitalizations at CRH, and no new cases of the virus were reported in Bartholomew County.

But just as it looked as if the county might round the corner, vaccine demand plummeted. Tens of thousands of Bartholomew County residents opted not to get vaccinated. Then the delta variant struck, and whatever rays of hope that had sprouted quickly shriveled into disappointment, despair and anguish as a wave of preventable sickness and death swept the county.

Masks were hurriedly put back on, including at Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. A group of parents and citizens protested mask requirements for teachers and students, including some who accused healthcare workers of “lying by omission” — despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary — about the effectiveness of masking. At the same time, doctors pleaded with a reluctant subset of the public to get vaccinated. “They didn’t have to die,” the doctors said, referring to the dozens of unvaccinated patients who succumbed to the virus.

Over the course of 2021, about 1 in 10 Bartholomew County residents tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in at least 2,241 trips to hospital emergency rooms, 580 hospitalizations, 95 ICU admissions and 87 deaths. Fourty-four of those deaths came after Aug. 1 — several months after safe and effective vaccines were widely available. But the deaths were just the “tip of the iceberg” of the virus’ impact on the community, with COVID-19 survivors experiencing a range of symptoms months after recovering — including respiratory problems, fatigue, loss of taste and smell, among others — and doctors aren’t sure when they will go way, or if they ever will.

As 2021 comes to a close, virus cases and hospitalizations are surging once again. This time, the surge has accompanied an overall flood of patients requiring hospitalization, many due to putting off health care during the pandemic or the long-term effects of COVID-19 infections. The end result: CRH in December recorded its highest inpatient census in its 104-year history and seems poised to finish the year with just as people hospitalized with COVID-19 than at the beginning, if not more. “We feel somewhat defeated,” an official said as the hospital braced for another spike in cases as people gather for the holidays and the ultra-contagious omicron variant has become the dominant strain.

2. Tragic deaths of young people dominate the headlines

2021 was a year compounded by the tragic deaths of young people that shook the Columbus and Bartholomew County community to its core.

Those deaths included:

– Tyrell D. Bowers, 17, Columbus, who had just graduated from Columbus East High School, drowned while swimming with friends at Tipton Lakes on the west side of Columbus on June 19. According to Coroner Clayton Nolting, Bowers went underwater before the Bartholomew County Emergency Operations Center received a 911 call at 9:54 p.m. Emergency responders from multiple agencies responded to the scene and Bowers was located at 11:24 p.m. Bowers was a member of the East football and track teams during his high school career.

– Columbus East student Lily Streeval, 16, was killed Aug. 30 after she was struck by a hit-and-run driver while attempting to cross Gladstone Avenue’s two lanes of traffic at 6:55 a.m. to get on her school bus, which was stopped with the red lights flashing, according to court records. Shiam Sunder Shankara Subramanian, 25, Columbus, was charged with Level 4 felony leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death or catastrophic injury and Level 5 felony passing a school bus when the arm signal is extended causing death. Witnesses said Subramanian, who was driving a Honda southbound toward the northbound bus, disregarded the bus stop arm and struck the teen, then left the scene, according to court records. Accident reconstructionists determined that even though the bus had its red lights flashing and the stop arm extended, Subramanian continued to drive toward the bus without slowing down, then continued without stopping after hitting Streeval in the roadway, court documents stated.

Streeval was a junior at East, where she was involved in the C-4 auto mechanic program. According to her family, she was looking forward to getting her driver’s license and enjoyed playing pool and kayaking.

– An 8-year-old Clifty Creek Elementary student was found dead March 21 in a Columbus home, and an autopsy determined he died from acute fentanyl and diphenhydramine intoxication, according to court documents.

Lealyn Tuttle was found unresponsive by Columbus police at the home of his father, Travis Tuttle, 35, 4373 Serenity Drive, who was later arrested on charges of neglect of a dependent resulting in death, a Level 1 felony, and possession of a narcotic drug, a Level 6 felony. Lealyn was a second-grader who enjoyed playing video games, T-ball, baseball and basketball, according to his family. He was described as a “kind young man who had a huge heart and an even bigger sense of humor,” according to his obituary. He was remembered as “always seeking out ways to help others. He had a wonderful smile that could light up a room.”

– Luke Poindexter, a 2018 Columbus East graduate, was killed while working for a delivery service in Indianapolis in late October. The investigation into his death is still ongoing. A fund was established for Luke Poindexter’s son, Gunner James, who was born Nov. 21. Luke was a student at Ivy Tech Community College, where he was pursuing a degree in industrial tech and welding, and he attended St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. He had been a three-sport athlete at East.

– After several days of searching, the body of 2-year-old Emma Sweet was found in the East Fork White River at about 11 a.m. Nov. 28 by Indiana State Police divers, after a firefighter spotted her while searching the river bank. The girl’s body was found about 2½ miles downstream from where her father Jeremy Sweet’s submerged truck was found at 6 a.m. Nov. 26. Jeremy Sweet, 39, 1415 N. County Road 850E, was initially hospitalized for hypothermia and frostbite after he was found in the truck by duck hunters, and was later charged with Level 1 felony neglect of a dependent resulting in death, unlawful possession of a syringe and also as a habitual offender. Sweet and Emma were last seen together in his black 2017 Ford F-150 pickup at 3:30 p.m. Nov. 24, and were reported missing by family members on Nov. 25, which was Thanksgiving Day. During a press conference, the girl’s uncle, Bryan O’Neal, expressed appreciation for all the agencies who worked together during the Thanksgiving weekend to find his niece “to bring her home.” Speaking through tears, he specifically thanked the divers (from the DNR and Indiana State Police) for their searching. “We got her home,” he said, before leaving the podium.

3. Camp Atterbury hosts Afghan refugees

Nearby Camp Atterbury became part of the national spotlight after U.S. troops left Afghanistan when about 7,200 refugees were housed locally in a mission known as “Operation Allies Welcome.” The goal was to help the refugees prepare and establish a new beginning in communities throughout the U.S. The resettlement effort was aided by the generosity of Hoosiers, including local residents, who donated clothing and supplies to help the refugees, many of whom left their country with not even a suitcase. “There’s been so much pride and passion here, and it’s a reminder of all of our purpose while we’re here is to help one another, to help our neighbors,” Gov. Eric Holcomb said during a press conference at the base in November. “As far away as they’ve come from, they are here at home in Indiana and in this country.”

4. A famous face at the insurrection

A local man and heavy metal musician who pleaded guilty to unlawfully entering the U.S. Capitol to obstruct Congress’ certification of the U.S. presidential election results is continuing to cooperate with authorities while on pre-trial release. Jon Schaffer, 53, Edinburgh, who is also believed to have lived in Columbus for a time, remains on pre-trial release under the supervision of the District of Columbia Pre-Trial Services Department. In April, Schaffer admitted to breaching the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, wearing a tactical vest and armed with bear repellent and pleaded guilty to obstruction of an official proceeding and entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds with a deadly or dangerous weapon. Schaffer, who is best known as a member of the heavy metal band Iced Earth, previously agreed to cooperate with investigators in hopes of getting a lighter sentence. A statement of fact in the case alleges that Schaffer used a type of bear repellent against Capitol police on Jan. 6. Photos and video from the insurrection show Schaffer inside the Capitol building wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt under a tactical vest with a baseball cap that reads “Oath Keepers Lifetime Member.” The FBI has labeled the Oath Keepers as a far-right militia group that “as a group urged President Trump to declare martial law in order to prevent the Congress from certifying the Electoral College Results.”

5. City, county commemorate a big birthday

Columbus and Bartholomew County celebrated a 200th birthday in 2021, planning events around COVID-19 pandemic protocols. On Aug. 13 and 14, a gala event was held on the grounds of the Columbus Pumphouse, with exhibitors and vendors, vintage vehicles, public art, music and a laser light show.

Plans continued for the Bicentennial’s signature project – The 1821 Trail extension – which will run from Water Street to Lafayette Avenue, connecting to the Haw Creek Trail. It will be constructed along First Street behind the Bartholomew County Jail, Columbus City Hall and the former Republic building.

6. City moves ahead with NexusPark

After a delay in 2020 due to the pandemic, Columbus officials along with Columbus Regional Health began moving ahead with the NexusPark project, a multi-million dollar renovation of the FairOaks Mall into a health, wellness and recreation center. The city has engaged Perkins & Will as the architect for its fieldhouse and parks department components.

Columbus Regional Health and the city of Columbus partnered in 2018 to purchase the FairOaks Mall facility to transform the mall into NexusPark, a community wellness, recreation and sports center, while also determining new potential uses for the Donner Center and connectivity with surrounding areas.

The NexusPark campus will include:

  • An indoor sports fieldhouse
  • Columbus Parks administrative, activity and community spaces
  • Retail
  • Restaurants
  • CRH medical and wellness offices

7. Murder, attempted murder cases dominate court docket

Bartholomew County is not known for having a large number of murder or attempted murder cases, but much like the pandemic continued to surge, so did the number of these cases going through local courts. There were eight murder or attempted murder cases pending in Bartholomew County courts in 2021, an additional two cases of neglect of a dependent resulting in death, and a filed case of leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death or catastrophic injury and passing a school bus when arm signal is extended causing death.

One case made it through the court system in 2021. A judge sentenced a local man accused of attempting to kill a professional ice skater and instructor to the maximum sentence allowed under a plea agreement. Ryan T. Halligan, 30, was sentenced to serve 50 years in prison for his brutal attack against Emaly “Emma” Baxter outside of the Hamilton Center Ice Arena on Oct. 23, 2020. “This is one of the worst, if not the worst, crime I’ve seen while I’ve been on the bench,” Bartholomew Superior Court 1 Judge James Worton said. The sentence breaks down to 35 years for attempted murder as a Level 1 felony, as well as an additional 15 years for a habitual offender enhancement. Worton ordered the sentences be served consecutively, and no prison time will be suspended. Halligan was also ordered to pay Baxter $10,234 restitution for the four months of work she missed while recovering from her extensive injuries following the attack.

8. Michael Brinegar competes in the Olympics

Columbus’ own Michael Brinegar, who swims for Indiana University, qualified and competed in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Brinegar competed in the prelims in the 1,500 freestyle on July 30. As he did in the 800 freestyle, he finished 17th. Only the top eight make the finals. “I was disappointed,” Brinegar said. “I wanted to make it back (to the finals), and I really thought I could. I trained way faster than I competed. I’m just going to use that experience for the rest of my career now.”

After he was finished for the games, Brinegar was able to stay and watch his teammates through the rest of the swimming program. That included watching Bobby Finke, the other American to swim in the 800 freestyle and 1,500 freestyle, come from behind late to win those two events. “I was really happy for him,” Brinegar said. “I spent most of our training camp in Hawaii training with him, and he’s a really great guy. So it was great watching him win, especially the way he swam it.”

9: Cummins dives into hydrogen tech

Cummins Inc. continued to make groundbreaking news by announcing partnerships to develop two hydrogen-fueled engines for potential medium- and heavy-duty uses. Hydrogen-fueled vehicles have long been viewed as an elusive “holy grail” alternative to those that burn fossil fuels, which create greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. The challenge has been how to engineer safe and reliable systems to power hydrogen vehicles, as well as how to build the infrastructure to refuel them. Cummins announced in July it was testing a hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine to “meet the energy and environmental needs of the future.”

Bankrolled by the U.K.’s Advanced Propulsion Centre, Cummins will lead the “BRUNEL” Project in Darlington, England, which seeks to develop a “zero carbon, hydrogen-fueled engine” to “help decarbonize heavy-duty transport.” The project aims to develop a 6.7-liter medium-duty engine sufficient for trucks, buses, construction equipment and similar uses, as well as a 15-liter engine that could power heavy-duty, long-haul trucks.

The goal, the Advanced Propulsion Centre said, was demonstrating that “tailpipe CO2 emissions can be virtually eliminated while retaining diesel-like levels of performance.”

10: Exhibit Columbus

Exhibit Columbus’ latest biennial run celebrating the city’s Modernist architecture attracted thousands of visitors, despite the ongoing pandemic. “I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished,” said Exhibit Columbus Director Anne Surak. “I think it was a time when everyone had to be really creative and adapt to circumstances. Bringing in the two curators (Iker Gil of Chicago and Mimi Zeiger of Los Angeles) was important to capture the zeitgeist of what was happening.”

Estimates are that the 2021 installment will at least match or exceed the 30,000 attendance figure of 2019.

The Exhibit Columbus program, launched in 2016, is an exploration of architecture, art, design, and community that highlights the city’s Modernist design legacy.