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KUT News' Top Stories of 2012

clockwise from top left: Bob Daemmrich, Texas Tribune; Jeff Heimsath for KUT News; Lance Armstrong, via Twitter; Valerie Romness

What is it about a story that captures people’s imaginations?

For the last two weeks, KUT News has been looking back at the year’s top stories. It’s an admittedly imprecise measure: some stories begin with a single person, while others concern sweeping environmental, political, health and development decisions. But stories that resonate – whether tragedy, politics, or even entertainment-related – invariably resonate beyond their initial radius, to touch the lives of countless others.

Here’s KUT News’ Top 10 stories for 2012, in a rough chronological order:

Tragedy can strike at any time. Austin’s music community was painfully reminded of that lesson when a mainstay of the local music scene, Esme Barrera, was murdered at her home in the West Campus during the first hours of the New Year. Nearly a whole year later, the District Attorney's officesays sufficient cause exists to arrest her alleged murderer, if he hadn't killed himself soon after Barrera's murder. APD is now declaring the case closed. 

As Texas’ longest serving governor, Rick Perry isn’t accustomed to losing. But in January 2012, the onetime front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination abandoned his bid and went back to Texas. Perry entered the Republican fray in August of 2011, quickly becoming a top contender for the nomination.  But between a series of punishing debate performances – culminating with that famous “Oops” moment that made Perry Texas Monthly’s 2012 Bum Steer of the Year – Perry couldn’t capitalize on his early momentum.

“He had some serious problems, and people tended to ignore that fact,” says Richard Troxell, president of local advocacy organization House the Homeless. “He certainly represented all that was weird in Austin …  He wanted to get attention for himself like everyone else. He did that in a flamboyant way, and it allowed us to not really address or focus on the real issue at hand, which is that we have people living and dying on the streets of Austin.”

Senior Police Officer Jaime Padron was shot and killed this April, after responding to a seemingly innocuous disturbance call at an area Walmart. Later that day, a suspect was named: 24-year-old Brandon Daniel. “This is the most trying day of my five years here,” a teary-eyed APD Chief Art Acevedo said that day. "There are a lot of tears flowing, there is a lot of hurt."

Austin has rarely, if ever, had such an important local election. No, we’re not talking about May’s municipal contest. Instead, November’s charter election – which saw the passage of Prop 3 (the “10-1” proposal to elect ten city council members by individual geographic districts) – means fundamental change for Austin government.

When state lawmakers pushed to remove Planned Parenthood from Texas’ Women’s Health Program as part of an anti-abortion agenda, some questioned whether the state could absorb the cost of the change. We still don’t know, because at year’s end, the legal battle over whether Texas can exclude Planned Parenthood  – currently the largest provider in the program– is still being fought.

The practice is controversial for several reasons. One involves the composition of the fracking fluid itself – a mixture of water, chemicals and sand – and whether it poses the danger of contaminating groundwater.  Another controversy centers on the relationship between earthquakes and disposal well sites used to dispose of fracking fluid and waste water. And environmental controversies weren’t the only issues to envelop fracking this year: “Frackademia” – the intersection of the drilling industry and academic experts – came under close scrutiny at the University of Texas.

Here’s one Austinite that’s probably ready for 2012 to end: Lance Armstrong. Cyclist, cancer survivor and seven-time Tour de France winner Armstrong found himself enveloped by controversy this year that ultimately lead to the erasure of his wins.

Among the somber anniversaries of 2012: the one-year anniversary of the Central Texas wildfires. Thousands of people were forced out of their homes on Labor Day weekend of 2011 by the massive wildfires and clouds of black smoke. Altogether, the wildfires claimed two lives, more than 1,600 homes, many pets and livestock, and thousands of acres of land and forests.

Austin’s inaugural Formula 1 race may be remembered less for what it was than what it wasn’t: the traffic-choking, city-closing snarl many residents feared it would be. 2011’s arguments over what financial role – if any – the city would play regarding F1 were largely left in the rearview mirror. Instead, questions over Austin’s F1 readiness dominated headlines in 2012.

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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