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HIV SCARE TOPS LIST OF WNY STORIES

TRIUMPHS and tragedies mingled in real life and on the pages of the newspaper last year as the life of a community unfolded. The chronicles of 1997 yield stories of human suffering, personal trials, sports turmoil and the community's hopes for the future. There were times to celebrate and times to mourn.

Here are the top local stories of the past year, as chosen by Buffalo News editors:

1. HIV scare

Chautauqua County was rocked in late October by Health Department revelations that former Jamestown-area resident Nushawn Williams had infected several young women with HIV, the AIDS virus.

The investigation, which opened a window on a lifestyle of drugs and sex in a segment of Jamestown's youth population, linked Williams to with the infection of 13 teen-agers. Victims of Williams' infection made national talk-show appearances, as the case drew widespread attention and news coverage.

Williams, who awaits sentencing on an unrelated drug conviction in New York City, faces a court appearance this month after independent psychiatric evaluations are completed.

2. Charles "Skip" McDougald
Widespread community grief and dismay also followed the shooting death in April of Police Officer Charles "Skip" McDougald, a popular officer who also was a substitute English and social studies teacher.

McDougald was shot in the heart while he and his partner, Officer Michael N. Martinez, tried to stop a man coming out af an alley on Northampton Street. Martinez was wounded in the 12:45 a.m. attack.

Jonathan Parker, 19, now serving a 15-year term in Attica Correctional Facility on unrelated gun charges, turned himself in two days after the shooting, ending a massive manhunt. He faces trial and a possible death penalty.

McDougald was the first Buffalo police officer killed in the line of duty in 27 years.

3. Marv Levy retires
Marv Levy, the winningest coach in Bills history, said he was "stepping aside" after 11 1/2 seasons.

Levy took over a team that had been 2-14, and led it into a golden era of eight playoffs and four Super Bowl games over 10 years.

But following a 6-10 season, the 72-year-old Harvard-educated coach suggested it was time for the Bills to look to the future with a new leader.

4. Samantha Zaldivar
The disappearance of 7-year-old Samantha Zaldivar Feb. 26 triggered widespread searches that had a tragic ending: Her body was unearthed May 23 by a farmer tilling a cornfield across the road from her Wyoming County trailer park home.

The search for a killer eventually centered on Angel R. Colon, 24, the live-in fiance of Samantha's 27-year-old mother, Rachel Stra. Prosecutors accuse Colon of forcing sex on the girl, killing her and then burying her in the cornfield.

Colon, arrested in Florida and returned to Western New York for trial, also faces a possible death penalty.

5. Gregg Blosat acquitted
In a judicial carry-over from one of the top local stories of 1996, Lt. Gregg G. Blosat of the Buffalo Police Department was acquitted Feb. 6 of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges in the death of motorist Mark Virginia.

Virginia, a 38-year-old grocer, was subdued by police after his van was stopped by officers who thought they had witnessed an illegal drug transaction. Several officers were involved in the violent altercation, during which the Starin Avenue man suffered a fatal throat injury.

The lieutenant had been accused of strangling the man, but the defense argued that death came from improper positioning in a police car after his arrest.

Blosat still faces departmental charges along with two other officers and was injured this November when he was hit by a stolen car he was trying to stop.

6. Jim Kelly retires
Veteran Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, who led the team to four Super Bowls, retired on Jan. 31.

The emotional retirement ceremony triggered an outpouring of tributes to the superstar athlete and, it seems clear now, heralded a painful period of rebuilding for the team's offense. But even more pain was in store for the quarterback-turned-broadcaster, who has actively supported some key local charities; he and his wife, Jill, learned their son, Hunter, has Krabbe's disease, a rare neurological condition that is usually fatal.

7. Buffalo Sabres in turmoil
The Buffalo Sabres were in turmoil this year in a multiepisode drama that mixed ice hockey and soap opera.

As the year ended, Adelphia Cable owner John Rigas was preparing to take control of the financially-strapped team from the Knox family, which had controled the franchise for 28 years.

Goalie Dominic Hasek attacked a Buffalo News sportswriter and was fined and suspended by the National Hockey League for three games. The "Dominator" missed three of the team's second-round playoff games before a Game Four loss that eliminated the Sabres from Stanley Cup contention.

The drama continued as the Sabres fired General Manager John Muckler on May 14, and coach-of-the-year Ted Nolan refused a one-year contract offer in late June. Then Pat LaFontaine, one of the most popular Sabres and a bona fide superstar, was traded to the New York Rangers in September -- out of concerns for either his health or his salary, depending on whom one listened to.

8. Buffalo Bills lease
Sports also crossed over into public policy and fiscal considerations this year, as Erie County, the state and the Bills conducted lengthy negotiations over a new Rich Stadium lease.

The talks ended in a 15-year, $150 million agreement that will keep the Bills in Orchard Park for at least the next few years -- and longer, if new seats and luxury boxes can be sold. The deal, signed July 31, also launches an era of statewide marketing of the team and gives owner Ralph Wilson renaming rights for the field.

9. The bridge debate
Debates raged during November and December over plans to "twin" or replace the Peace Bridge.

The debates pitted the Peace Bridge Authority's plans for a new, $65 million, parallel bridge just south of the 70-year-old structure against a "SuperSpan" concept advanced by businessman John Cullen's SuperSpan Upper Niagara group. The larger $100 million bridge, envisioned as a dramatic "signature" structure by an international designer, would cross from Fort Erie to LaSalle Park instead of the current Peace Bridge landing adjoining Front Park.

10. New airport terminal opens
Buffalo got its long-awaited, badly needed new airport terminal this year, and the structure drew rave architectural reviews as it opened Nov. 1.

The dramatic, $55 million terminal staked a strong "gateway" claim for the renamed Buffalo Niagara International Airport. More than 40,000 people attended preopening inspections, and the structure itself was acclaimed as a major addition to the city's architectural heritage.

There were other major stories in 1997 that made selecting a "top 10" list difficult and somewhat arbitrary.

Tragedy struck a Depew family Sept. 1, as Sarah Smith, 26, died one week after suffering a heart attack and going into a coma during cosmetic breast surgery in her physician's West Seneca office.

Mrs. Smith, a legal secretary, left behind a husband and two young sons. Local plastic surgeons criticized her doctor for using general anesthesia in an office procedure instead of in a hospital.

The medical license of Dr. Anthony S. Pignataro was suspended, and investigations were begun by the state Health Department and the Erie County district attorney's office.
There was the July 29 adoption of the latest state budget in New York history, which was -- that were not strictly a "local" story, stories, for example.

Most Western New Yorkers also were directly affected by such stories as the persistent lake-effect squall band that delivered the fourth-worst 24-hour snowfall in city history on Jan. 10 and 11, a 21.4-inch snowfall that shifted south and dumped 35 inches of snow on Hamburg. That storm killed four people and garnered national live cable television coverage on the Weather Channel.

Other major stories for 1997 included the deaths of Kenmore volunteer firefighter Tim Goff, injured by a falling wall on May 24, and Buffalo firefighter Michael L. Sequin, trapped in a Kehr Street attic July 4 during a blaze triggered by fireworks.

Disputes over the collection of state taxes triggered unrest on local Indian reservations in April, ending only when Gov. Pataki announced New York wouldn't try to collect state taxes for sales on the reservations.

In May, the mayor's budget called for tax cuts and privatization of Buffalo's water agency, a major change in the way the city has provided services. City politics also brought both primary and general elections that pitted three major powers -- and ended with Mayor Masiello beating both former Mayor James D. Jimmy Griffin and Common Council President James W. Pitts to win re-election.

In a major pocketbook story, a number of school budgets went down to defeat in taxpayer revolts this year -- and in a significant vote of another sort, directors of the Buffalo Zoo decided to begin the process of moving the 132-year-old Delaware Park institution to bigger and better quarters at a new site on the waterfront.

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