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2015 in Review: Convicted murderers' prison break leads local news stories

Some of the stories were purely local.

Some were local stories that captured national interest.

Some were national stories that had direct local ties.

They all rank as the top 10 local stories of 2015 for the Buffalo area, as selected by the staff of The Buffalo News.

The two biggest local stories were watched across the nation. They would be the prison break of two convicted killers – one from North Tonawanda – from a maximum security prison in the Adirondacks.

The other was the rape accusation a local woman made against Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane, followed by the bizarre allegation and retraction of evidence tampering that occurred before the district attorney decided no charges would be pressed.

Other top 10 stories included new hope for the Sabres and Bills, weather extremes, opiate addictions and parents reaction to Common Core.

1. Escape from Clinton Correctional Facility

Law enforcement officers search a neighborhood in Cadyville, N.Y., near Dannemora, where two violent inmates escaped from prison nearly a week ago, June 12, 2015. Joyce Mitchell, a prison worker who had befriended the killers before their escape, was arrested for providing material assistance, authorities said Friday. (Nancie Battaglia/The New York Times)

Law enforcement officers search a neighborhood in Cadyville, near Dannemora, where two violent inmates escaped from prison in June 12. (New York Times file photo)

1. On the night of June 5, Richard W. Matt, and David P. Sweat, two convicted killers, used a hacksaw smuggled to them in ground meat by a female prison worker to sneak out of Clinton Correctional Facility, becoming the first prisoners to successfully escape the North Country maximum security prison in over a century.

For the next 22 days, the nation was riveted by their brazen escape and the massive manhunt that followed.

Matt grew up in the City of Tonawanda and is believed to have killed at least two people, including a Tonawanda businessman in 1997 whom he murdered and dismembered before fleeing to Mexico, where he killed the second man in a strip club. Sweat was considered equally dangerous. When he and an accomplice were caught by a Broome County Sheriff’s deputy in 2002 during a theft, Sweat got out of his car, shot the deputy 22 times and then ran over him.

The two escapees seemed to vanish into the Adirondacks forest without a trace. At one point, police descended on Allegany County after a woman reported seeing two men near train tracks in that rural area. Then the report came that a man checking on his hunting camp in the Adirondacks saw someone running away. DNA tests soon confirmed the escapees were still in the Adirondacks, and the manhunt shifted as more than 1,300 federal, state and local law enforcement officers combed the thick woods and harsh landscape.

On the morning of June 26, an abandoned campsite was found. Then a man in a camper said he’d been shot at. A border patrol agent spotted Matt, who was holding a shotgun. He opened fire, killing Matt.

Two days later, a state trooper on patrol alone saw a figure in a field close to the Canadian border. It was Sweat. He took off running and the trooper fired a shot. Sweat survived and was taken back into custody.

“The nightmare is finally over,” declared Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

– Maki Becker

2. Investigation of Patrick Kane

Attorney Thomas Eoannou announces that the evidence bag which contained the "rape kit" collected from the Patrick Kane accuser was left at the doorstep of the victim's mother yesterday during a press conference in his office at the Cornell Mansion in Buffalo, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (Photo by Derek Gee / Buffalo News)

The scene at the news conference where attorney Thomas Eoannou revealed an evidence had been left at the doorstep of the victim's mother. It soon came out that the evidence bag was not what it seemed. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News file phtoo)

What really happened when hockey superstar Patrick Kane took a young woman to his posh Town of Hamburg home early on the morning of Aug. 2?

The only two people who really know – Kane and the young local woman – have never stated publicly what happened. But that didn’t stop people from all over America from taking sides on perhaps the region’s most controversial story of 2015.

No Buffalo story attracted more national interest than one that erupted after the woman told Hamburg Police that Kane had raped her. The story was covered by every national sports publication, network news stations and major newspapers from Chicago, New York City, England and elsewhere.

Kane, 26, the South Buffalo native who is recognized as one of the world’s best hockey players, denied the allegations and hired attorney Paul J. Cambria to represent him. The young woman hired attorney Thomas Eoannou. In a bizarre turn of events, the accuser’s attorney held a press conference to accuse law enforcement officials of mishandling evidence, but the next day he announced that his earlier accusation had been wrong and he had been deceived.

Many questions and criticisms were raised: Did Kane get special treatment because of his celebrity? Did the woman make a false accusation in an effort to get money from Kane? Did the news media go overboard in its reporting on the controversy?

Ultimately, with the help of DNA evidence, Kane and his legal team prevailed in early November, when Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Sedita announced there would be no charges. Debate over the case still continues, and the possibility still exists that the accuser will file a civil lawsuit against Kane this year.

– Dan Herbeck

3. Corruption in Albany

To cap off the year, this fall saw the conviction on corruption charges of former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, top, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. (News wire services)

To cap off the year, this fall saw the conviction on corruption charges of former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, right, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. (News wire services)

It was the Super Year of Corruption in Albany, and it came after several years of earlier corrupton.

A half-dozen state lawmakers were convicted or pleaded guilty in various corruption cases. The cases included two former top Democratic leaders of the Senate and the former Republican deputy Senate leader.

And, to cap it all off, the corruption convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos dominated the months of November and December.

What’s a state Capitol to do?

Wring its hands, once again. As 2016 starts, the usual calls for changing how this town works will resonate in speeches, news releases and policy briefings by legislators, who called Silver and Skelos their friends, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose administration is no stranger to investigations.

Uber-prosecutor Preet Bharara is looking into how the Buffalo Billion projects were awarded.

There are few surprises in a long list of proposals coming up: make the Legislature full time and limit outside income to dissuade bad behavior; reduce the domination that money has over politics in New York, with its sky-high donation limits and law-skirting loopholes to benefit incumbents; and somehow make the Legislature more democratic and less centrally controlled by legislative leaders.

Alas, as one lawmaker noted: You can’t legislate morality. Or shame. Or humility.

Even with Bharara vowing to continue examining the ways of Albany and its players, there is no guarantee that 2016 won’t be in these pages with another re-run of the title: Year of Corruption.

– Tom Precious

4. Opiate epidemic

Volunteer "cuddler" Sister Frances Joseph gently snuggles with a 1-week-old newborn suffering from "neonatal abstinence syndrome" due to his mother's opiate use during pregnancy. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News file photo)

Volunteer "cuddler" Sister Frances Joseph gently snuggles with a 1-week-old newborn suffering from "neonatal abstinence syndrome" due to his mother's opiate use during pregnancy. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News file photo)

During one 24-hour period in July 2015, 10 opiate overdoses were reported in Buffalo. One man died. One woman overdosed twice. Two were from the suburbs – Hamburg and Elma.

The heroin and prescription pill epidemic took its toll in Erie County, where at least 188 people died this year from opiod-related overdoses. A total of 116 died from opioid overdoses in all of 2014.

“This epidemic has leveled families, corrupted neighborhoods and brought the glaring flaws of our system to the forefront of our discussions,” said South Buffalo resident Mark Levin, who lost three friends over the year to opioids, in speaking to Erie County Legislature in November.

Law enforcement officials and lawmakers, health care workers and treatment specialists have been trying to tackle the continuously growing problem.

Opiate antidotes such as Narcan were distributed to police officers throughout Western New York who now routinely administer the nasal spray to revive people who are suspected of overdosing. Across the region, in cities and the suburbs, workshops on how to use the spray properly drew crowds and often had waiting lists. Support groups for families of addicts have formed.

Police have conducted numerous drug raids and issued warnings when heroin laced with fatal levels of fentanyl circulated in the community.

– Lou Michel

5. Common Core opt-out

Jennifer Morrow had her daughter Kelsey, a fourth-grader at Lindbergh Elementary, opt out of state tests this week in Kenmore, N.Y. on Wednesday, April 15, 2015. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Jennifer Morrow's daughter Kelsey, a fourth-grader at Lindbergh Elementary, opted out of state tests in April. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Children played a central role in a shift in statewide education policy this year when 20 percent of students in third through eighth grades across the state refused to take tests aligned to the controversial Common Core learning standards.

The protest ratcheted up a statewide debate over a series of initiatives to overhaul public education in New York, including the use of student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. This month, the state Board of Regents agreed to place a four-year ban on using the state test scores to individually evaluate teachers and students. The decision came after a task force formed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recommended the moratorium. The task force’s recommendations, which also include reviewing the Common Core standards and making the state tests more transparent, were a marked change from education reforms sought by Cuomo in the beginning of the year, when he pushed for a new law to increase the significance of state test scores in evaluating teachers.

The test boycott was particularly strong in Erie and Niagara counties, where half of the school districts saw 40 percent or more of their students opt out. In West Seneca, 70 percent of the children refused the assessments.

– Denise Jewell Gee

6. Leadership changes in Buffalo Schools

Kriner Cash, speaking, shortly after being voted in as new Buffalo School superintendent in Buffalo city hall on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Kriner Cash, speaking, shortly after being voted in as new Buffalo Schools superintendent in August. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Significant education leadership changes in 2015 pave the way for drastic changes in some Buffalo public schools this year.

Both newly appointed state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Buffalo Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash have promised an overhaul of the district’s most struggling schools, and a new receivership law grants them powers to make changes that circumvent the union contract.

Those changes could include lengthening the school day, revamping classroom programs and even reassigning staff.

Still, those actions also depend on the outcome of a legal challenge filed by New York State United Teachers, which says the receivership law contradicts long-standing labor rules.

Meanwhile, the next school board election is in May, and with six seats up for grabs various forces are already jockeying for power. It’s entirely possible the makeup of the board – and who holds the majority – will change.

– Tiffany Lankes

7. New hope for Buffalo sports fans

This year saw the arrival of the Buffalo Beauts, a women's professional ice hockey team. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News file photo)

This year saw the arrival of the Buffalo Beauts, a women's professional ice hockey team. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News file photo)

Out with the old and in with the new aptly describes Buffalo’s professional sports scene in 2015.

On the Bills front, head coach Doug Marrone skipped town the day before the new year dawned, setting the stage for Rex Ryan to blow into Buffalo promising frustrated fans the world – or at least a playoff berth. Well, there’s always next year.

Meanwhile, in Sabreville, the franchise’s orchestrated dismantling reached its apex/nadir with a last-place overall finish that guaranteed the arrival of one of two generational talents – Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. Eichel’s presence and shrewd personnel maneuvers by General Manager Tim  Murray seems to have Buffalo sports fans believing that at least one franchise is headed in the right direction.

What else was new? The arrival of a Women’s Professional Hockey League team, the Buffalo Beauts; UB basketball’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament; and South Park’s state football championship, a first for a Buffalo city school, all chipped in to help make 2015 a year of breakthroughs and fresh beginnings.

– Bob DiCesare

8. Key Bank buys First Niagara

As long as federal regulators approve the deal, the merger of First Niagara and Key Bank will create an upstate powerhouse. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Many branches of First Niagara and Key Bank can be found within spitting distance of one another, as in this block on Delaware Avenue in Kenmore. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The ripples from the $4.1 billion merger between KeyCorp and First Niagara Financial Group are just beginning to spread.

The bank merger pairs a bank whose high-priced acquisition push failed to reward its frustrated shareholders with a cautious bank that had largely stayed out of the acquisition fray.

The deal will create an upstate banking powerhouse that will rival Buffalo’s M&T Bank. If the deal is approved by federal regulators, Key will hold the No. 1 or No. 2 market share in most of the major upstate markets, from Buffalo to Syracuse and Rochester to Albany.

But the deal also is likely to have a dark side for the Buffalo Niagara region. The combined banking company won’t need two separate headquarters or back office operations, and many of Key’s 57 branches within Western New York are within spitting distance of one of First Niagara’s 52 local offices. About three of every 10 branches operated by the two banks are within 2 miles of another branch, making it likely that Key will try to get a significant amount of the $400 million in cost savings it is targeting by closing branches and cutting duplicate office jobs.

Key hasn’t said where the cuts will come, and its executives have stressed that 40 percent of the projected cost savings will come from technology expenses, especially tech operations that First Niagara outsourced through third-party vendors.

But the deal has raised concerns among policitians, including U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a Senate banking committee member. Community groups have said they are worried that branch closings could lead to less lending and fewer branches in already underserved markets.

– David Robinson

9. Record cold, record warmth bookend the year in weather

Jennifer Monroe braves the cold winds and blowing snow on Mackinaw St in Buffalo Tuesday, February 3, 2015. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Jennifer Monroe braves the cold winds and blowing snow on Mackinaw Street in Buffalo on Feb. 3. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Weather-wise, 2015 was no 2014, with its pair of blizzards and epic twin lake-effect storms of November.

But weather history bookended both sides of the year with records for cold and warm that could remain intact for generations.

February 2015 went down as not just the coldest February in Buffalo since the weather service started keeping records in 1870, but as the coldest month ever. The average temperature was 10.9 degrees. The entire month was below freezing.

There were 10 days when the mercury dipped below zero, including a pair of -10s, and three daily highs in the single digits.

It went down as the third snowiest February of all time, with 46.2 inches of snow.

Then, after a dry start to the spring, a mostly average summer and a warmer-than-usual fall, thanks to a strong El Niño pattern, came December.

The month will melt the record for all-time warmth among Buffalo Decembers.

As of Dec. 25, the average temperature for the month was 43.6 degrees. The record is 37.6 set in 1923.

The warmth included a 71-degree day on Dec. 14, which shattered the former daily record of 64 degrees and was part of a weeklong string of high temperatures above 50 degrees. And, a 66-degree, record-breaking Christmas Eve.

The record for most December days with highs in the 50s was also broken. Thirteen of the first 25 days were at least 50 degrees this month, already eclipsing the all-time record of 11, set in 1982.

This year was also the latest for the city to record its first measurable snowfall. Just 0.1 inch fell at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport on Dec. 18. The former record was Dec. 3 – in 1899.

– T.J. Pignataro

10. Toddler killed along Scajaquada Expressway in Delaware Park

People write on the concrete barrier in Delaware Park before the vigil Tuesday, June 2, 2015. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

People write on the concrete barrier in Delaware Park before a vigil in remembrance of Maksym Sugorovskiy. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The death of Maksym Sugorovskiy in May continues to resonate throughout Western New York, where lawmakers took swift action to improve safety conditions on the Scajaquada Expressway.

The 3-year-old lost his life after he was struck by a car that careened off the expressway and into Delaware Park, where he was walking with his sister, Stephanie, and their mother, Mary. Witnesses to the crash recalled hearing the mother’s screams as scores of people watched the horrific scene unfold.

Within 48 hours, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered the speed limit on the expressway reduced from 50 to 30 mph. Concrete barriers were erected along Ring Road near the scene of the fatality.

During the months that followed, stops signs were installed at expressway on-ramps, traffic lanes were narrowed and the roadway was restriped as the Department of Transportation continued the process of changing the classification of the Scajaquada from an urban expressway to a parkway.

Future plans call for signal-controlled pedestrian crossings with raised, high-visibility crosswalks to be installed across the expressway east of Delaware Avenue and east of Elmwood Avenue.

The driver of the vehicle, who admitted falling asleep at the wheel and causing the accident, was never charged. His license was later revoked.
Stephanie Sugorovskiy continues to recover from the head injuries she sustained on that sun-soaked day.

A family attorney filed an intent to sue the City of Buffalo and the State of New York.

– Jane Kwiatkowski

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