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A memorable year

From a contentious, 11-day teachers' strike in Medford to an exhilarating, first-ever national championship for Southern Oregon University's Raiders, the year 2014 had its memorable moments for local residents.

Below are Mail Tribune staffers' picks for 2014's top stories of local significance, either because of their impact to the community, readers' interest, or both.

1. Medford teachers strike

More than 500 teachers in the Medford School District went on strike for 11 school days in early February after contract negotiations between the teachers' union and the district reached an impasse.

The strike affected more than 12,000 students and initially closed schools for three days until they reopened with half-day schedules, substitute teachers and, in some cases, shared campuses. Students returned to class Feb. 11.

A tentative agreement between the union and district was reached Feb. 22, with both sides approving the new contract in early March.

2. Recreational marijuana legalized

Oregon voters approved the legalization of recreational cannabis during the November election, but the controversy over the drug continues in Jackson County.

Many cities, including Medford, Ashland, Central Point and Gold Hill, have placed city taxes on marijuana, though Measure 91's language does not allow that. Jackson County will also put its own proposed tax before voters this March.

Medford and Jacksonville have banned medical marijuana dispensaries in the city limits.

3. Jackson County bans GMO crops

Two-thirds of Jackson County voters in May approved an ordinance banning the growth of genetically modified crops in the county.

Since then, two local GMO alfalfa farms have sued the county, saying the ban violates the Oregon's Right to Farm Act and that they would lose millions of dollars if forced to tear up their crops.

The county has said the voter-approved ban will not be enforced as long as the issue is being litigated in U.S. District Court.

4. Police shootings kill 2

Three police-involved shootings in Jackson County killed two local residents and injured two fugitives from Idaho.

On March 6, Wayne Eugene Pearson, 30, and Shavon Ruth Willard, 32, were pursued by law enforcement after being spotted at the Motel 6 on Biddle Road. Police had recognized their vehicle, a white 1998 Dodge pickup, from an "attempt to locate" bulletin issued by Idaho and Douglas County authorities. Police followed the vehicle as it started to drive away. When they reached Hilton Road near the Best Buy parking lot, Pearson hit the accelerator and rammed a police vehicle. Police opened fire and hit Willard in the arm, chest and leg. Pearson's head was grazed. Thirty-nine shell casings were later recovered from the scene. Pearson and Willard were sentenced to prison for their crimes.

Three months later, two Jackson County Sheriff's Department deputies shot and killed 73-year-old Earl C. Harris during a forced eviction at Harris' Ashland home. Police tried to call Harris outside several times before forcing their way inside. Harris greeted them with a loaded shotgun. When Harris did not comply with orders to drop the weapon, the deputies fired.

In August, officers shot and killed U.S. Marine Corps veteran Stephen Andrew McMilon, 52, near a church parking lot at the corner of Cherry Street and Stewart Avenue in Medford after he fired a shotgun at police. McMilon suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Officers involved in all three incidents were later found to be justified in the shootings by grand juries.

5. Arson fires plague Medford 

A month-long string of 23 suspected arson fires around west Medford kicked off June 25 with the leveling of a Fir Street historic warehouse that was home to Miscellany Antiques.

The blaze burned the structure to the ground in the pre-dawn light, with little spared inside. A wave of additional fires followed, with strings sometimes popping up within the span of just a few hours. Many were reported near alleys, fences and outbuildings. A house and large pile of fruit crates were also burned in the spree.

It came to a halt after a month when police arrested 57-year-old Debra Johns, charging her with four of the fires. She was convicted of starting two of them in November.

6. Boles fire levels Weed neighborhood

A suspected arson fire ripped through the town of Weed, Calif., in mid-September, destroying 157 homes, two churches, a community center and the library. Weed Elementary School and a large sawmill were also damaged by the flames.

Weed resident Ronald Beau Marshall, 24, has since been arrested on charges he started the fire during an attempt to burn down the apartment complex where he lived. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

For more information on how to help with ongoing recovery efforts, visit https://weed.recovers.org.

7. Wrong-way driver kills 911 dispatcher

On March 27, a Grants Pass man allegedly drove the wrong way on Interstate 5 while drunk and slammed his car head-on into a 911 dispatcher's car near exit 24, killing her.

Richard Webster Scott, 43, was charged with first-degree manslaughter, driving under the influence of intoxicants, reckless endangerment and reckless driving after the crash killed 58-year-old Karen Lee Greenstein of Ashland. Greenstein was on her way home from a shift at Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon at 3:15 a.m. when the crash occurred.

The Jackson County District Attorney's Office has said the case remains in a holding pattern, as Scott had been ordered to a state hospital so he can undergo an evaluation that would show whether he was mentally fit to stand trial.

The next pre-trial conference is scheduled for Jan. 5, per court records.

8. Pig farmer accused of two murders

A Jackson County pig farmer is accused of shooting and dismembering two men on her property.

Susan Monica, 57, was arrested Jan. 10 after she was found using the Oregon Trail Card of one of her alleged victims, 56-year-old Robert Harry Haney. The discovery led to a search of her farm, which uncovered the remains of Haney and 59-year-old Stephen Frank Delicino. An indictment says the men were believed to have been killed in September 2013 and the summer of 2012, respectively.

Prosecutors have said Monica shot both victims in the head. Monica has called the charges "absurd." She remains in the Jackson County Jail without bail on charges of murder, abuse of a corpse and identity theft. A jury trial has been set for April 14, court records show.

9. Library district passes

Jackson County Library Services got a new breath of life in May when 55 percent of county voters supported the creation of a library district.

The libraries were once funded by the county, but the Board of Commissioners said it could not support them any longer. If a new funding mechanism weren't found, the libraries would close down. 

The new district can tax property owners up to 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed property, raising up to $9 million annually. The district board agreed to tax 52 cents per $1,000 the first year to fund an extra 58 hours of operation.

10. National champions

The Southern Oregon University Raiders football team won their first ever NAIA national championship against Marian University Dec. 19.

The Raiders rolled their opponent in a 55-31 shellacking in which quarterback Austin Dodge threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns. Dodge was also dubbed the NAIA national player of the year.

The Raiders paraded through the streets of Ashland two days later, waving at the red-and-black clad crowd, trophy shining beside them.

Other stories

Other significant stories this year included:

• A race for Jackson County sheriff that began with three candidates ended with incumbent Sheriff Mike Winters throwing his support behind Ashland police Deputy Chief Corey Falls, who won the November election. Challenger Lt. Bob Sergi was investigated by the Oregon Department of Justice for alleged illegal solicitation of campaign funds in the weeks leading up to the May primary, but the DOJ dropped the investigation because of insufficient evidence. Sergi was fired from his job with the sheriff's department in July.

• Southern Oregon University established an institutional board, which will take over governing responsibilities overseen by the Oregon State Board of Higher Education on July 1.

• Harry and David was acquired by 1-800 FLOWERS.com in a $142.5 million deal in September.

• Pacific Retirement Services' One West Main and Jackson County's new Health & Human Services building opened this year, significantly changing the landscape of downtown Medford.

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

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Supporters react during the May election after learning that a ban on GMO crops in Jackson County passed. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Catherine Brasseur, a fourth-grade teacher at Howard Elementary, rallies about 100 teachers gathered outside the Medford School District during a strike in February. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch