2011 in the East Valley was marked by political upset, a slow economic recovery, and the mother of all dust storms. Now as the year comes to a close, one of Arizona’s most powerful politicians sits on the sidelines, America’s so-called toughest sheriff is more embattled than ever, a sad chapter in the valley’s history has ended with an execution, and the gap between haves and have-nots is ever widening. Oh, and we still continue to be fascinated by something called a haboob.
In an election that grabbed national headlines, voters ousted state Senate President Russell Pearce in a recall that started as a fight over illegal immigration laws but ballooned into much more.
Pearce started 2011 as one of Arizona’s most powerful leaders, and the anti-illegal immigration legislation he authored — SB 1070 — was being considered in numerous states. But it was his focus on illegal immigration that triggered the recall movement by Citizens for a Better Arizona, which gathered more than 10,000 signatures in Pearce’s west Mesa District 18. And by the time the election was called, opponents found more ammunition to use against Pearce.
News broke that the lawmaker received nearly $40,000 in tickets and travel expenses from the Fiesta Bowl, more than any other elected official. More backlash resulted when Pearce supporters, including two of his nieces, worked to get Olivia Cortes on the ballot to split the vote and boost Pearce’s odds. Questions about Cortes’s finances and nasty campaign tactics helped newcomer Jerry Lewis pull off the upset — and Pearce became the first state lawmaker to be recalled in Arizona’s 99 years of statehood.
We’re used to bad dust storms during the monsoon — but 2011 blew away even the most seasoned desert dweller. The July 5 haboob was 100 miles wide, a mile high and it dropped visibility to nearly zero. Even meteorologists said they’d never been through a dust storm so intense.
The wall of dust resulted from a collapsing thunderstorm by Tucson and rushed toward the Valley. It turned night into day in a moment, and it went viral online about as quickly.
The storm also caused a resurgence in the use of the term haboob, the Arabic word for dust storm. And in a year of tragedies and controversies in Arizona, it may have been some of the best national press we got.
A 3-year federal investigation found that Sheriff Joe Arpaio had discriminated against Hispanics and used his office to retaliate against critics. The civil rights probe began in the Bush administration, but Arpaio labeled the probe as a smear campaign by the Obama administration. The Republican sheriff maintains his office doesn’t discriminate and is enforcing laws, including those against illegal immigration.
The scathing report claimed a culture of bias with Hispanics mistreated in jails, “crime suppression” sweeps that targeted Hispanic neighborhoods, and racial profiling. Investigators interviewed more than 400 people in the probe, which Arpaio initially didn’t cooperate with. Critics called for the five-term sheriff to resign, but Arpaio brushed aside the idea.
The probe continues to examine whether more than 400 serious crimes went uninvestigated and whether the sheriff’s office used excessive force.
The economic recovery proved agonizing. Some positive signs were simply that things weren’t getting worse. Housing continued to struggle, but foreclosures were at least dropping. Job growth remained sluggish, and vacancy rates improved only slightly. The East Valley showed some promise. Tempe’s West 6th apartment towers were finally completed this year, transforming one of the region’s most prominent projects that failed in the recession. Also, crews broke ground on a First Solar plant in Mesa and a $5 billion Intel plant in Chandler, which is one of the largest current construction projects in the world.
Despite those bright spots, more storefronts became vacant in 2011. And, donations at the Mesa United Way and other charities are down as people who donated in the past are now forced to seek help themselves, leaving some food banks unable to meet the growing demand from the hungry.
The state executed Donald Beaty, who raped and killed a 13-year-old Tempe girl in 1984. Beaty, 56, was a maintenance worker at an apartment complex where he kidnapped Christy Ann Fornoff as she made collections for her newspaper route with her mother. Beaty pretended to help search for Christy before he put her body in a trash bin. He even attended the funeral, where he shook her father’s hand. Police eventually linked him to the crime through physical evidence.
Christy’s parents, Roger and Carol, asked a judge for the death penalty in 1985. Just before he was executed May 25, Beaty teared up and told observers, “I just want to say to the Fornoff family, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. God’ll let you see her again.”
More notable events from 2011:
- Yet another Valley priest — and the second one in just a few years at Mesa’s St. Timothy’s Catholic Community, Father Jack Spaulding was removed as pastor and investigated over sexual abuse allegations.
- East Valley public schools continued to struggle with aging neighborhoods, changing demographics, and declining enrollment as Mesa Unified and Tempe Elementary districts closed more campuses.
- The sordid case of Susan Brock, the ex-wife of Maricopa County Commissioner Fulton Brock, ended with her being sentenced to 13 years in prison for sexually abusing a Chandler boy.
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