By Erick Johnson
2019 began with a surprise change in leadership in Gary’s police department. By the end of the year, another police chief would take over while Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson would say goodbye as the city’s first female mayor. Jerome Prince would begin as Gary’s new mayor after stunning his predecessor in the Democratic primary election, leaving many in shock and disbelief. In the meantime, state Senator Eddie Melton was making plans to run for the biggest office in Indiana.
It was a year full of surprises, good and bad. Hard Rock placed its bets on Gary with plans to build a $400 million Casino. Councilman Ronald Brewer was arrested and charged with kidnapping a teenager. EdisonLearning’s management of Roosevelt College and Career Academy came under heavy criticism and scrutiny. The year ended with a statue that served as a fitting tribute to Gary’s first Black mayor, Richard Gordon Hatcher, who died weeks before Prince was sworn in to begin a new era.
The Crusader takes a look back at a year that saw profound change in Gary.
NEW POLICE CHIEF SWORN AFTER LARRY McKINLEY ABRUPTLY
Gary Lt. Richard Allen on January 8, was sworn in as the city’s new police chief, one day after Larry McKinley abruptly resigned after serving three years on the job.
Relatives, friends and city leaders packed the council room at City Hall as Allen took the oath administered by Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson. Minutes later, Allen announced Special Operations Commander Brian Evans, 48, as his deputy chief.
The swift transition of leadership left little time for Gary residents to process it all after they received news of McKinley’s sudden resignation January 7 from a department that has struggled to reduce crime and keep the city’s streets safe. Fresh from the first weekend of 2018, people began arriving at City Hall to help usher in a new era in the police department. The mayor did not explain the reasons for McKinley’s resignation.
SPARKS-WADE INJURED IN DOMESTIC DISPUTE
Gary Councilwoman La Vetta Sparks-Wade was injured in a domestic dispute at a home she shared with former Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington.
Washington was arrested after he barricaded himself inside the home in the 3900 block of Martin Luther King Drive. He was temporarily banned from attending Gary City Council meetings.
Washington was arrested and charged with attacking and holding Sparks-Wade against her will for nearly 16 hours. Washington could face a jury as early as April, 2020.
ROOSEVELT BUILDING CLOSES AFTER PIPES BURST
Theodore Roosevelt College and Career Academy closed its doors January 30 after the pipes burst during extremely cold temperatures caused by a polar vortex. Over 500 students stayed home for two weeks before they were relocated at the Gary Area Career Center. While Roosevelt’s historic building remained closed, EdisonLearning and the state-controlled Gary Community School Corporation remained silent and held no community meetings about the building’s condition until the Crusader began reporting about the problem. The story would play out the rest of the year with a series of meetings as distrust deepened among Roosevelt alumni and Gary residents. At a community meeting MGT executive Eric Parish said it would cost $10 million to restore Roosevelt’s building, but no documents of assessments were ever presented to support that estimate. A Crusader investigation in December revealed that EdisonLearning had been paid over $22 million since 2012 and could earn as much as $31 million by 2019 for managing Roosevelt. After the Crusader story, EdisonLearning then pledged to restore the building for $15 million. The state will decide on Roosevelt’s future in February 2020 amid calls that local control be returned to the Gary School District.
FREEMAN-WILSON DELIVERS STATE OF CITY ADDRESS
On February 22, 2019, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson delivered the State of the City Address at the Genesis Convention Center, where she said the city’s fiscal deficit has been a significant challenge. She said the problems were being addressed in her financial recovery plan.
Wilson said the city’s assessed values have been declining for several years with an effect on the city’s tax rate, but it has no impact on the taxes residents pay.
GARY CRUSADER EMPLOYEE STABBED TO DEATH
Carlos Johnson, a beloved employee of the Gary Crusader was stabbed to death during an argument on March 26, in Gary. Edward Miller, 76, was charged with murder and voluntary manslaughter in connection with Johnson’s death. According to an affidavit, Lake County police say Miller stabbed Carlos Johnson with a kitchen knife after a heated argument the two had in an apartment at 100 W. 11th Ave. in Gary. Police arrived on the scene after responding to an emergency call about a stabbing.
INDIANA PASSES SIGNIFICANT GAMING BILL
The Indiana Assembly on April 15 passed an important gaming bill that paved the way for Gary’s Majestic Star Casino to relocate from Buffington Harbor to a land-based location for a $50 million fee. On Monday, April 15, the bill passed the Indiana House. The Indiana House voted 78-15 to approve Senate Bill 552, which would also legalize sports wagering.
CITY SAYS HISTORIC MEMORIAL AUDITORIUM TO BE DEMOLISHED
The Gary Redevelopment Commission on April 24 announced that crumbling, but historic Memorial Auditorium will be demolished to make way for Broadway Lofts, a multi-family housing development. The demolition has been approved by Indiana’s Dept. of Natural Resources through its Office of Historic Preservation. In 1994, the auditorium was designated a National Historic site. Construction of Broadway Lofts rental apartments on the site could start in late fall or spring 2020, after site inspections and preparations are completed by Miller Valentine Holding, the project’s developers.
Two-term Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson lost the Democratic primary in a stunning upset by Lake County Assessor Jerome Prince on May 7. Freeman-Wilson, Gary’s first Black female mayor, endeavored to win a third term facing eight Democratic candidates challenging her mayoral seat.
Prince received over 48 percent of the vote. Wilson received nearly 38 percent of the vote. Turnout was extremely low with just 27 percent of voters going to the polls. Under Freeman-Wilson’s leadership, several companies made plans to open plants in the city, providing hundreds of jobs to help boost the city’s economy. But some residents say not enough attention was given to cleaning up of neighborhoods and potholes.
$1M PLAN TO REMODEL CITY HALL UNVEILED
Gary city officials announced plans to spend $1 million to remodel portions of historic City Hall. Some city employees have been assigned to offices in the City Hall annex located at 839 Broadway, the former location of Sears in downtown Gary, but city officials are interested in selling off the annex and moving city employees back to City Hall, at 401 Broadway
GARY’S INDIANA DUNES BECOMES U.S. NATIONAL PARK
The Indiana Dunes, in Gary’s Miller Beach neighborhood, on Tuesday, May 28, was dedicated as a U.S. National Park during a ribbon cutting ceremony, becoming the first of its kind in Indiana. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson was among several community leaders who attended the ceremony to mark the historic occasion.
The ceremony capped a century-long effort to make the Dunes a national park since 1916, when Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, began advocating for the creation of the “Sand Dunes National Park.”
CRUSADER PUBLISHER HONORED AT NAACP BANQUET
Longtime Crusader Publisher Dorothy R. Leavell was given thunderous applause as she received the Corporate Excellence Award from the Gary branch of the NAACP during its annual banquet June 1 at the Genesis Convention Center.
Leavell joined several community leaders and activists who were honored that afternoon. They included Dr. Michael McGhee, who was given the Gary NAACP Image Award; Oliver Gilliam, president of the Gary Frontiers Service Club was given the Hilbert Bradley Award; Dr. Sarah Givens, an educator for Gary Community Schools, was given the Jeanette Strong Award.
HARD ROCK TO BUILD $400M CASINO IN GARY
Hard Rock International, one of the world’s iconic global brands announces plans to transform Gary’s Majestic Star Casinos into a $400 million casino and entertainment complex. Four months after the sale of the struggling casino to Spectacle Entertainment, it will be rebranded as the Hard Rock Gary Casino.
The deal is a big step in reviving Gary’s economy and image.
The new complex will open in 2022 adjacent to the Borman Expressway at Burr Street and 29th Avenue. In addition to a Hard Rock casino, it will include a Hard Rock Café, a Hard Rock Live concert venue, restaurants, and bars, on 40 acres.
The Hard Rock Casino will have up to 2,764 gaming positions, according to a news release. The Majestic Star’s boats currently combine to hold 1,620 slot machines and 63 table games. Horseshoe Hammond, Indiana’s largest casino, located about six miles west of Gary, features 2,173 slots and 150 table games.
Spectacle Entertainment will pay $20 million to the state to relocate the casino on land. The project is expected to create more than 1,000 construction jobs and about 2,000 casino jobs.
$1.3M HANGAR UNVEILED AT GARY AIRPORT
The Gary/ Chicago International Airport unveiled its new East Corporate Hangar at a ribbon-cutting celebration Friday, August 16.
The nearly 25,000 square foot $1.3 million East Corporate Hangar is Gary’s newest facility.
FREEMAN-WILSON NAMED CHICAGO URBAN LEAGUE CEO
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson on August 13 was named President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League, the organization announced. Gary’s first Black female mayor will begin her new job after her term as mayor ends on December 31, 2019.
Wilson will succeed Interim President Barbara Lumpkin, who introduced her successor at the Urban League’s annual banquet in November where Chicago’s Chaka Khan performed before 1,500 guests. The organization’s banquet raised $2 million.
FAMILY SEEKS JUSTICE AFTER MAN FATALLY SHOT BY GARY POLICE
Gary police on August 17, fatally shot Rashad Cunningham, 25, during a traffic stop in the vicinity of East 23rd St. and Kentucky Avenue at approximately 3 a.m.
The Lake County Coroner’s Office ruled the death a homicide and no officers were injured. Cunningham was pronounced dead at 4:30 a.m.
Witnesses said Cunningham had a concealed carry permit for the gun that was on his lap during the police encounter. They allege that he did not reach for the weapon. Cunningham’s family said the shooting was unjustified.
Dissatisfied with the early status of the investigation, the family hired civil rights attorney Andrew M. Stroth, managing partner of the Action Injury Law Group which handles police shooting cases across the country.
COUNCILMAN RONALD BREWER CHARGED WITH KIDNAPPING
Gary Councilman Ronald Brewer was charged with kidnapping and criminal confinement after he was accused of taking a young boy that he believed was involved in the theft of his car.
Lake County police released a five-page affidavit that gives a wild, detailed account of how the incident unfolded on September 22.
Prosecutors do not believe the boy was involved when Brewer’s car was stolen in Gary in September and taken to East Chicago.
Dignitaries, community leaders and residents cheered as Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson unveiled the statue immortalizing former Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher during a special dedication on Wednesday, October 9. In a festive ceremony, Hatcher returned to City Hall to be honored with a monument after he was elected Gary’s first Black mayor 52 years ago. Located on the steps of the south side front entrance of the building, the bronze statue mounted on a limestone pedestal, drew cheers and applause when the cover was removed before a large crowd. The 10-foot statue represents a handsome, young Hatcher clad in a sharp three-piece suit with one hand in his pocket.
State Senator Eddie Melton on October 8, announced his campaign for governor at Gary’s main library downtown. Melton seeks to become the first Black governor in Indiana’s 203-year history. One of Melton’s main goals is to improve the quality of education in the state, and pay for teachers. Earlier this year Senator Melton launched an exploratory committee to weigh his bid for Indiana governor in 2020.
Melton is the third Democrat to join a field vying for the Democratic nomination to face Governor Eric Holcomb. Holcomb officially declared his bid for a second term July 13.
Gary attorney and former Gary City Councilperson Ragen Hatcher officially announced that she will run for State Senate District 3 in the May 2020 primary election. The Indiana Senate District 3 seat is currently held by the Honorable State Senator Eddie Melton. Senator Melton has decided to run for governor of Indiana. Upon learning of his decision to run for governor, Representative Hatcher shared with Senator Melton her desire to run for this position.
Hatcher, a Democrat is the eldest daughter of Richard Gordon Hatcher, Gary’s first Black mayor.
U.S. STEEL CUTS JOBS AFTER FINANCIAL LOSS
Last week, U.S. Steel (USS) let go an undisclosed number of workers after a recent company restructuring. Workers have been laid off nationwide, including the Gary Works and Midwest Plant locations. The layoffs are the latest indication that iron ore and steelmaking industries are sharply declining. U.S. Steel declined to disclose the number of people it let go. It did confirm that the layoffs were non-union which means the affected parties worked in managerial or other professional positions. In 2016, U.S. Steel laid off managerial staff at Gary Works when it cut 750 non-union workers nationwide, approximately a fourth of its salaried workforce at the time.
PRINCE NAMES RICHARD LIGON GARY POLICE CHIEF
Richard Ligon, a retired federal agent with over 30 years of experience, was appointed to head the Gary Police Department.
Mayor-elect Jerome Prince announced the appointment at a press conference Monday, December 10 at City Hall. Ligon replaced Police Chief Richard Allen.
Ligon will take over the leadership of the Gary Police Department at the beginning of the year. He said there are no plans for a major shakeup within the department.
MAYOR RICHARD GORDON HATCHER DIES
Richard Gordon Hatcher, Gary’s first Black mayor who at 34 ushered in an era of Black power after his historic victory in 1967, died December 13. He was 86.
Mourning spread throughout the city as the flag at City Hall was lowered to half staff. Hatcher’s statue, which had been unveiled two months ago in front of City Hall was adorned with a purple and black scarf. Purple bunting draped the south entrance at City Hall.
A week of mourning was capped by an eight-hour visitation and a three-hour funeral at the Genesis Convention Center, which was built during Hatcher’s term in office. On Friday, December 20, long lines formed outside the facility as people waited to view Hatcher’s body as it lay in repose in his namesake arena. He looked peaceful, wearing a black suit and gold tie, the same colors he used during his historic campaigns for Gary mayor.
On Saturday, December 21, Governor Eric Holcomb ordered all state offices to lower the flag to half-staff from sunrise to sunset. That day, Mayor Karen Freeman Wilson, Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr., Minister Louis Farrakhan and Crusader Publisher Dorothy R. Leavell joined numerous dignitaries and Gary residents who celebrated Hatcher’s life during his funeral.
Hatcher’s black casket sat between three large screens where images of his political life were shown with soft music. Hatcher’s daughters Ragen and Renee spoke about Hatcher’s life as a dad. Freeman-Wilson announced that through an executive order she had renamed a portion of Grant Street after Hatcher. After the funeral, the procession and hearse carrying Hatcher’s body passed under a large American flag held up by two Gary firetrucks. The procession then traveled south on Broadway as people waved goodbye.