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Teen’s abduction ranked top Iowa story of 2013

Published: Monday, Dec. 30, 2013 11:19 a.m. CDT

DES MOINES (AP) — It was a parent’s worst nightmare, and one that continued day after day.

The abduction of 15-year-old Kathlynn Shepard while she and a 12-year-old friend were walking home from school shocked the small community of Dayton. As days passed, searches failed and her abductor was found dead, the emotion of many in Dayton and across Iowa turned to dread, and more than two weeks later, her body was found in the Des Moines River.

In a statement, the Shepard family said, “Today our family has lost part of its soul — not just the Shepard family but the families of Dayton and all of Iowa.”

Associated Press newspaper and broadcast members ranked the heartbreaking killing the top Iowa news story of 2013.

And the story didn’t stop with Kathlynn’s burial.

Through the year, her family and others in the community called for lawmakers to approve stricter sentencing and monitoring for sex offenders who target children. They promised to keep up the pressure until achieving their goals.

The year’s second-ranked story remains unresolved.

It started April 26, when Special Agent in Charge Larry Hedlund, a 25-year veteran of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, reported a speeding sport utility vehicle to a state trooper, who opted not to stop the SUV after learning it carried Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Hedlund filed a complaint and days later was stripped of his duties and told he was under investigation for insubordination and rules violations. He was later fired.

As details slowly trickled out, Branstad appointed a retired Iowa Supreme Court justice to review the matter, questions were raised about special license plates on the governor’s SUV and thousands of other state vehicles that made them difficult to track and Department of Public Safety Commissioner Brian London resigned.

Hedlund continues to pursue a lawsuit, claiming he was wrongfully dismissed. “The goal is restoring my reputation and my credibility,” he said.

The speeding story narrowly topped the third-ranked story — the use of isolation cells and other questionable practices at the Iowa Juvenile Home.

The treatment of children at the center in Toledo came to light after an investigation by the advocacy group Disability Rights Iowa and stories by The Des Moines Register.

As legislators learned of physical restraints used on children, the long-term reliance on isolation cells and a failure to properly educate children, they began to call for changes. Branstad said he also didn’t know specifics about the center’s practices. After learning more, he ordered that the facility be closed.

The Iowa Legislature was voted the fourth-ranked story thanks to a session that will go down as among the most productive in years.

Lawmakers of both parties joined with Branstad to pass legislation resulting in an expansion of low-income health insurance, reduced commercial property taxes and implemented leadership incentives for teachers and laid the groundwork for future education changes.

Branstad said it was the most productive of the 19 sessions he has participated in as governor, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal called it historic.

“We are not Washington, D.C. We are not gridlocked. We are people of good faith that worked together, solved problems, and Iowa is better because of it,” Gronstal said.

Ranked fifth was the surprisingly large harvest that followed a soggy spring and a hot, dry summer. Even some farmers didn’t have a sense of how successful they’d been until they began harvesting their corn and soybeans. Still, farmers in other states saw even bigger yields, and Iowa barely maintained its status as the nation’s top corn producer, with an estimated 2.2 billion bushels.

A story that began in 2009 largely came to a conclusion in 2013, when a judge entered a final judgment of $3.4 million against a Texas company found to have mistreated 32 mentally disabled workers at an Iowa labor camp. AP voters ranked the story No. 6.

U.S. Senior Judge Charles Wolle ruled the men will be awarded $1.37 million in back pay, $1.6 million in damages and $421,000 in interest. Each will receive average awards of $106,000 if Henry’s Turkey Service of Goldthwaite, Texas, can pay the judgment.

Jurors found May 1 that Henry’s discriminated against the men, who were hired out to work at an Iowa turkey processing plant, and awarded each $7.5 million in damages. The $240 million verdict was later slashed because of federal damage caps.

The seventh-ranked story marked the end of another long-running topic, as former Cedar Falls investment broker Russell Wasendorf Sr. was convicted of orchestrating a $200 million fraud and sentenced to decades in federal prison. Wasendorf was arrested in 2012, following a suicide attempt. He admitted he misspent investor funds over a 20-year period.

The investigation and resignation of state Sen. Kent Sorenson was the eighth-ranked story. Sorenson resigned after an independent investigator concluded he likely broke Senate ethics rules in receiving money from presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s political action committee and presidential campaign. He maintains his innocence.

In ninth place was the increase in questions and actions involving ethanol, a homegrown fuel made mostly from corn that has long enjoyed strong support in Iowa and much of the Midwest. Amid news stories questioning claims about the fuels environmental benefits and the oil industry’s call to reduce production requirements, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed reducing the amount of ethanol required in the nation’s fuel supply.

Rounding out the top 10 list was a continuing surge in construction of data centers in Iowa.

Microsoft announced plans in June to spend more than $677 million to build the first phase of a project in West Des Moines, near its existing data center, and additional phases could be added later. That followed plans by Facebook to build a nearly $300 million data center in Altoona and for Google to expand its data center in Council Bluffs.

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