Top 10 Stories Of 2007
Christy Freeman Case
In late July, the owner of a local cab company was charged with murder after police discovered the remains of her recently stillborn fetus wrapped in a towel under the bathroom sink in her Ocean City home, touching off a wild few days during which three more fetuses were found stored in and around her residence.
The incident touched off a major national media blitz in the resort at the height of the tourist season as cadaver dogs and FBI prosecutors working with local police continued to search the home and eventually excavated a vacant lot adjacent to it while searching for more remains while hundreds of morbid curiosity seekers watched and waited for what would happen next. Most of the major national media outlets set up shop on an otherwise quiet Ocean City street as helicopters circled overhead.
Prosecutors initially charged the mother, Christy Freeman, of Ocean City, with first-degree murder for the death of her child allegedly stillborn on July 27, but later dropped those charges and applied first-degree murder charges against Freeman for the death of a full-term or near full-term infant, a twin, born sometime in 2004 and stored by the mother in a trunk in her bedroom. Freeman essentially confessed to killing the infant in 2004 during an interview with an OCPD detective following the discovery of her most recent stillborn child, but later recanted the confession, stating she only told the story so investigators would leave her long-time boyfriend and four grown children alone.
Freeman spent 54 days in the county jail while investigators and prosecutors prepared a case against her. However, the case began to unravel when the state medical examiner's office released its official findings on the remains of the four fetuses found in and around Freeman's home. The medical examiner's office reported there was inconclusive evidence the fetus in question, or any of the other three fetuses, were ever alive, and without proof of life, there could be no prosecution for murder.
Therefore, Worcester County State's Attorney Joel Todd recommended a grand jury not indict Freeman on murder charges. In September, those following the sensational case were stunned when Todd announced at a press conference in Snow Hill all of the charges against Freeman were being dropped and she was free to go.
Freeman and her long-time boyfriend Ray Godman have threatened to sue everybody involved in the case including the Ocean City Police and the prosecution team among others.
Trimpers Safe For Now
The year began with Trimper's Rides, the beleaguered Ocean City landmark and cornerstone of the resort for about 120 years, threatening to close down and change the face of the town forever and ended with the Mayor and Council lending support to a proposal to create a special tax district to help save the historic amusement park.
Perhaps no one story in 2007 captured the attention of generations of visitors to Ocean City as much as the Trimper's story did, largely because of the threat, real or perceived, of the historic park's pending closure. Faced with stable, if not stagnant revenues and staggering property tax assessment increases, Trimper's officials announced last spring the summer of 2007 could be its last. The announcement touched off a wave of emotion from long-time visitors and residents alike, many of whom have visited the historic park for generations, and prompted local and state officials to explore ways to relieve the company's onerous tax burden or find an alternative solution to saving the park.
Fueled largely by an unquenchable desire to redevelop old property in the resort with shiny new condominiums, thousands of which sit empty and unsold, the property assessments for the historic park rose a staggering 163-percent over the last three years, increasing the property taxes owed by the family business by $500,000 over the same period. The dramatic increase landed the historic amusement park in the red, forcing company officials to consider shutting it down after nearly 120 years.
In a letter to Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley last spring, Doug Trimper said the family was strongly considering closing the historic park. Trimper said the biggest factor in the decision is the increased property tax assessment, which went from $29.6 million in 2004 to $77.9 million in 2007.
In August, O'Malley toured the historic park with Trimper's officials and local and state elected officials and vowed to do what he could to intercede. In the meantime, attempts to abate the soaring tax increases slogged their way through the appeals process. The Trimpers did get good news on at least some of the company's 24 individual properties in September. The appeals led SDAT to reduce the assessments, and consequently the property taxes owed on a handful of the properties, saving the company an estimated $470,000 after the reduction. The savings on the 2007/2008 tax bill alone will equal about $78,000.
With at least some good news on the appeals front, Trimper's officials said this fall the park will be open for business as usual in 2008, but made no promises beyond that. Just last week, family patriarch Granville Trimper, along with attorney Joseph Harrison, requested the Mayor and Council's support on a bill proposed to be submitted to the General Assembly early next year to create a special historic amusement tax district in order to abate soaring assessment increases in the future. The council voted unanimously to support the concept of the proposed historic amusement tax district, but requested final approval of legislation once it is drafted.
Sex Store Opens
When it came to light last March a Salisbury-based outfit had leased a corner store in the Bayside Plaza on 137th Street for the purpose of opening an adult video store, area merchants and neighboring residents reacted with disgust and dismay.
When the adult-themed store became a reality a week later, local elected officials in both Ocean City and Worcester County sprang into action to find ways to ensure the first-of-its-kind retail store didn't proliferate in the area.
The Ocean City Mayor and Council extended a moratorium on new adult-themed stores again last week while they await a final plan to prevent their proliferation.
In the meantime, the County Commissioners have taken steps to ensure the sex stores do not start popping up in areas of the county at large.
Smoking Ban Passes
After years of contentious debate, state lawmakers this year passed the Clean Air Act of 2007, officially making indoor bars, restaurants and other public places across the state including Ocean City completely smoke-free starting in February.
The effort to make all Maryland bars and restaurants smoke free had gained momentum in recent years, but failed each year because the legislation could not get out of the respective House and/or Senate committees. Those barriers were knocked down this year when both the House and Senate approved similar pieces of legislation banning smoking and were able to reconcile the differences in their respective bills.
The vote sparked mixed reactions among resort business leaders, some of whom applauded the decision while other decried another attempt by the state to dictate how one operates his or her business. In the end, the public safety benefits outweighed the private enterprise considerations for most of the lawmakers who approved the Clean Air Act.
Even before the bill was signed into law, however, some local businesses questioned whether it created a level playing field. The bill allows establishments with outside dining and bars to continue to allow smoking in designated areas, while strictly inside businesses are not afforded the same consideration under the law.
In addition, the bill provides possible exemptions for those businesses that can prove financial hardship created by the smoking ban, which will likely trigger several appeals in the area. The smoking ban is set to start on Feb. 1.
Slots Referendum OK'd
The reality of slots at Ocean Downs is now closer than it has ever been with the General Assembly's approval this fall of a bill that will allow the voters of Maryland to decide the issue once and for all in a statewide referendum next November.
In a special General Assembly session, state lawmakers approved a constitutional amendment allowing the voters of Maryland to decide the slots issue with a referendum question on the November 2008 General Election ballot. State voters will be asked to approve as many as 15,000 slot machines at five venues across Maryland including as many as 3,250 at Ocean Downs.
Ocean City officials remained steadfast in their opposition to the video gaming machines at Ocean Downs, and the Worcester County Commissioners sent an 11th-hour letter stating their opposition to the plan, but in the end, it was too little, too late and the racetrack near Ocean Pines was not taken out of the equation.
In the November 2008 referendum, a simple majority of the state's electorate, one way or the other, will signal the fate of the proposed 15,000 slot machines in Maryland including as many as 3,250 at Ocean Downs in Worcester County. An effort near the finish line to consider the vote counts in the jurisdictions where slots venues are proposed failed, meaning the state's electorate will decide.
Berlin Electric Sale Fails
In April 2007, the long saga of Berlin's attempt to sell the town's electric utility came to an end with the news that one purchaser had pulled out of negotiations.
Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), which had signed a letter of understanding to buy the Berlin power plant, stepped away from the purchase when an old oil spill on the plant property came to light. The spill had never been remediated, and a letter of understanding between the town and purchaser contained a clause allowing ODEC to back out over environmental issues.
The Berlin Town Council then voted to end negotiations with Choptank Electric over the more lucrative sale of the distribution network. The town needed the proceeds from the sale of both elements of the electric utility to pay off the utility's substantial debts and reduce rates.
The controversial sale had been approved by a narrow margin in a straw poll of the townsfolk in fall 2006, while opponents continued to protest the ultimately unsuccessful sale attempt.
West Ocean City Murder
Less than two weeks into 2007, the community was stunned with the news a local woman had been shot to death in her parents' West Ocean City home.
On Jan. 11, details began to emerge about the shooting death of Pamela Balk and a search for the prime suspect, Gregory W. Stokes, 31, began. After a bizarre sequence of events identified Stokes as the prime suspect in the case, he was arrested in Baltimore less than 24 hours after detectives from the Worcester County Bureau of Investigation discovered the victim's body in her parents' home in the Mystic Harbor community.
Stokes shot Balk in the early morning hours and left the residence in a vehicle belonging to the victim's parents. After crashing the vehicle near Salisbury, Stokes returned to the scene of the crime hours later in a taxi and took another vehicle belonging to the victim. When he returned the second time, Stokes hit the victim's barking dog so hard on the head that the animal had to be euthanized.
Several key clues in the case, from the discovery of a handgun in the first vehicle, to Stokes' own admission he had argued with Balk before parting ways, to an alleged phone call to an old friend during which a panicked Stokes admitted shooting the victim, a collaborative effort by local law enforcement agencies were able to piece together what had happened. Late in the afternoon on January 11, WCBI detectives discovered Balk's body in the Mystic Harbor residence. In August, Stokes pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and aggravated assault on an animal. In September, Stokes, who was characterized as a 'damaged man who had been a damaged boy,' was sentenced to a combined 33 years in jail for the convictions.
Route 50 Bridge To Close
In a story that will likely be as big in 2008 as it is in 2007, the State Highway Administration (SHA) announced this fall it would close the Route 50 Bridge to all traffic for about 35 days from mid-January to mid-February.
The bridge will undergo a major renovation and repair job that includes replacing its existing draw span. Because the drawbridge will be out of commission, the entire bridge will be closed to vehicle traffic above and marine traffic underneath for over a month.
The bridge is scheduled to close on Jan. 17, despite efforts by local elected officials and business leaders to move up the start date for the project earlier in January in an effort to mitigate the impacts on one of the busiest weekends in the winter months which includes Valentines Day, the annual Seaside Boat Show and President's Day weekend. However, the start date is contingent on the delivery of needed materials for the project and could not be moved up any earlier.
SHA officials remain confident the project will be completed within the prescribed 35 days providing the weather cooperates, which is a big 'if' considering the time of year. The alternative is to put off the project and run the risk of a major malfunction in the height of the summer season.
Father Dies In Ocean
Tragedy struck in July when a Fruitland man died in the ocean near the Inlet while attempting to save his two young sons caught in a rip current.
On Sunday, July 22, Renald Charles, 38, of Fruitland, went into the ocean near the Inlet in an attempt to rescue his two sons, ages 10 and 13, who had become distressed in the water. The father and two sons, now caught in a rip current, drifted around the north jetty and headed toward the Inlet.
Witnesses on a nearby parasailing boat saw the three distresses swimmers waving their arms and came to assist them. They were able to pull the two children on board, but an attempt to save the father, now unconscious, was not successful. The Coast Guard arrived minutes later and pulled the unconscious father from the water. He was first taken to the Coast Guard station and later transported to Atlantic General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Deer Rescued in Ocean City
A very resilient deer went on a rampage of sorts through downtown Ocean City in July that ended with the tranquilized animal crashing through the window of a Boardwalk restaurant before being safely returned to the woods near Berlin.
What happened in between sounds more like the drunken exploits of a June Bug rather than a wild deer as the animal dashed from the beach to the Boardwalk to the streets of the resort. The deer was first spotted early Wednesday morning near Dorchester Street and for more than an hour and a half, Ocean City Police and animal control officers attempted to sedate the animal using a tranquilizer gun.
The deer, with a tranquilizer dart in its neck, then ran up the Boardwalk and onto the beach and back again. The deer was shot with a tranquilizer by a police officer near 10th Street and continued north on the Boardwalk. It finally crashed through a window at DaVinci's Restaurant on the Boardwalk. The animal was sedated again by the officer, and after it became unconscious, it was carefully loaded into a pick-up truck by concerned citizens and the police officers.
The deer was then driven to a wooded area near Berlin where it was released. The animal was administered an antidote to the tranquilizer and shortly thereafter it ran off into the woods. The incident was the first of two involving deer running around in Ocean City this summer.
Another bizarre incident with a happy ending unfolded at the Inlet in Ocean City later in the summer when a young male deer was spotted roaming the beach near the Inlet. Initial efforts were made by Ocean City police, animal control and paramedics to capture the deer but they were unsuccessful. The deer was eventually surrounded on the jetty until it reportedly jumped into the ocean, prompting a rescue attempt by onsite personnel.