Year in Review: Top 10 Trumbull stories from 2015

From the cold, snowy winter earlier in the year to the warm, damp and elongated fall that has bookended it, Trumbull wasn’t shy in notching some of the top headlines across the HAN Network’s collection of regional newspapers in 2015.

The town enjoyed its fair share of compelling news over the last year, ranging from a very close municipal election to a pair of local moms who are fighting at the state level for a bill that would allow medically fragile children with serious, complex health issues to receive medical marijuana.

And, of course, nobody in town can forget the controversy surrounding the “Women of Purpose” painting at the Trumbull Library that was vandalized after igniting religious debate among residents.

Along the way, there was the good (plenty of new businesses opening their doors in town), the bad (the nation’s heroin epidemic continued to creep closer to home), and the ugly (moving Trumbull Day from June to September).

It wouldn’t be a new year without a little reflection, so without further ado, here are The Times’ picks for Top 10 Trumbull stories from this past year.

Kevin Sutherland slain

Tragedy fell on 24-year-old Trumbull resident Kevin Sutherland and his parents, Doug and Theresa, on July 4, when the American University graduate and former intern for U.S. Congressman Jim Himes was murdered on a Metro train in Washington, D.C.

According to reports, the suspect, Jasper Spires, 18, allegedly tried to steal Kevin’s cell phone.

While the news coverage surrounding the vicious attack has touched on Kevin’s love of politics and public service, there came to be much more to know about Kevin, through an interview that Doug and Theresa Sutherland gave to The Trumbull Times days after the brutal attack.

In that conversation, Kevin’s parents explained his early talent for computers, how he was sensitive to others’ pain and tragedy, and his gift for photography — capturing breathtaking scenes in the nation’s capital.

Terry and Doug Sutherland are also learning new things about their son this week, most notably that his reach went farther than they could have imagined.

“It seems like almost everybody that ever met him fell in love with him,” Doug Sutherland said through tears, “and we didn’t know that.”

In the months that followed, Spires was deemed competent to stand trial next year after two psychological examinations.

Meanwhile, the grieving parents found some solace at a special service held for their son on the campus of American University at the end of August.

“It was the first time we heard from his professors since his death,” Doug told The Times in an interview the following week.

“One was crying as much as we were at the service, and that left quite an impact on us — they all said how special a student he was, how much potential and talent he had.”

Mr. Rodgers and the THS neighborhood

No person yielded more spinoff stories and generated more Web hits in 2015 than former Trumbull High School teacher Joe Rodgers, who was fired after sending a Facebook message to town Councilwoman Cindy Penkoff requesting that her son remove a sensitive post about President Barack Obama.

As students prepared to rally around the 13-year sub through a Facebook group that ballooned to over 1,700 members, First Selectman Tim Herbst responded to Rodgers’ claims that he played a role in his dismissal.

It’s a political smear campaign and the kids are being used as pawns,” the first selectman told The Times. “Why else has he delayed until 20 or so days before the election? If this were so egregious why wasn’t it reported earlier? If it were me and I was upset, I would have been vocal about it a lot earlier.”

Beyond blaming Herbst and Penkoff, the veteran substitute and retired United Nations interpreter said that his students were fighting an uphill battle bringing the issue up in front of the Board of Education.

“They know there’s something seriously wrong, something that’s embedded deep in the culture of their town and in the culture of their schools, and that’s not something they’re going to overcome tonight,” he said.

“You can hear the defeat in their posts on the group’s Facebook page, saying things like, ‘Don’t speak about the truth or will get thrown out of the meeting,’ ‘Don’t discuss the controversy — you know how the board operates,’ ‘We just have to convince them they need more substitute teachers,'” he added. “They know that this is a totalitarian board that’s ultimately run by a dictatorship-style government.”

Penkoff released the initial exchange between her and Rodgers and a Trumbull high alumnus submitted a letter to The Times that stated he had no political allegiance in setting up the Facebook group.

“The first selectman has accused this of being some sort of political movement, but as the sole admin of this page, I can assure you I’ve had no contact with any political body, and I promise you’re not being used as a pawn,” said Tom Cole, a 2014 THS graduate.

When all was said and done, Rodgers remained out and Penkoff failed to earn re-election in her District 2 seat. The saga lent itself to four of The Times’ top 12 Web stories of the year.

Herbst tops Tesoro in narrow election

The 2015 election was a nail biter — one of the closest municipal races in town history.

After months of heavy campaigning, Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst won his fourth term by 352 votes, defeating Democratic challenger Vicki Tesoro 5,851 to 5,499 at the top of ticket.

While the Republicans maintained super majorities in the Town Council, the Board of Finance, and the Board of Education, the big surprise from the ballots was that Town Treasurer John Ponzio lost his race for re-election as Democratic challenger and former state Sen. Anthony Musto won narrowly — 5,607 to 5,489 — the difference being just 118 votes.

In total, 11,302 votes were cast at the polls, producing an estimated 45% voter turnout — up from 9,159 votes that were recorded in the first selectman race in 2013.

Seven races were decided by fewer than 100 votes and more than a dozen races were decided by fewer than 500 votes.

It took the registrars of voters two additional hours after the polls had closed to proclaim the winner of the race, as 700-plus absentee ballots kept Republican and Democratic party members on the edge of their seats on election night.

“Ms. Tesoro is, without question, the strongest candidate that the local Democratic Party has run since 2009 and we recognized from the very beginning it was going to be a competitive race,” said Herbst, who was on the losing side of a narrow election last fall when he ran for state treasurer. “Every election is different: Sometimes you’re the challenger, sometimes you’re the incumbent. You run on your record and you give it your best shot. …

“It was a competitive race and we knew it was going to be a competitive race, and we approached it that way,” the first selectman added. “At the end of the day, a win is a win and I’ll take it.”

Comparing it to other close elections in the past, there have been two narrower voter outcomes for the office of first selectman. In 2001, Ray Baldwin was elected to the post by 76 votes, and in 1981, Paul Timpanelli won by 129 votes.

Anthony Teixeira passes away after rollover crash on Thanksgiving

Former Trumbull High School boys soccer team captain Anthony Teixeira died tragically after suffering severe head injuries in a rollover crash Thanksgiving morning on Beardsley Parkway.

Teixeira, 21, held on for a few days after the accident but ultimately succumbed to his wounds.

The 2012 Trumbull High School graduate was in the vehicle with four other passengers who escaped the crash with injuries ranging from scrapes and cuts to broken bones. Police said none of the injuries were considered to be life-threatening.

At the time he was working at Arcadis Engineering. He had formerly been employed by Smith Richardson Golf Club, the town of Fairfield Board of Education, and Aptar,” his family said in his obituary. “He was a loving son and brother who enjoyed spending time with his family. His smile and love will always continue to live in the hearts of all who knew and loved him.”

The soccer star led the Golden Eagles to the FCIAC Championship and received many athletic awards.

Women of Purpose painting vandalized

Who knew a painting could cause such a ruckus?

The painting, Women of Purpose, depicts several historical women, including Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, and Mother Teresa. Sanger’s face was the only one damaged at the Trumbull Library by what appeared to be a marker or makeup.

Two Trumbull High students witnessed a woman bend down between a railing where the painting was hanging, over a stairway to a lower level. The witnesses said they saw the woman appear to be drawing on the painting, on what was Sanger’s face.

Oddly enough, the controversial artwork had just been rehung a few days earlier, after being removed at First Selectman Tim Herbst’s order. Herbst cited copyright and indemnity issues.

A local Catholic group in town was also working to get the painting taken down.

The town had recently obtained insurance on the painting and the entire Great Minds Collection, painted by Robin Morris and owned by Richard Resnick.

The vandalism happened while a library board meeting, discussing legal issues and controversy about the painting, was going on in the next room.

Herbst, who was in attendance, interrupted the meeting to tell the board what happened and that police were on their way. His announcement elicited gasps and a few tears from some in room.

“Do you understand why people who value the handicapped, who oppose national and racial prejudices, who don’t think the poor are human waste, who don’t believe a large family is wicked, who oppose coerced sterilization and segregation would find this painting offensive?” George Meagher asked the board. “And if you understand, why haven’t you issued a public apology?”

Moms fight for medical marijuana use

For years, Trumbull mothers Joy O’Meara and Ashley Deaso had braced themselves for a life without their children Jamison and Reagan, who suffer daily from uncontrolled, life-threatening seizures.

But now — with the proposed Senate Bill 1064, which would allow medically fragile children with serious complex health issues to have two doctors sign off on their receiving medical marijuana in oil form to treat their life-threatening conditions — there was a light at the end of the tunnel of fear.

“About three years ago, I began to prepare myself to not have my son forever, and I know Ashley feels the same way,” O’Meara said.

“We live day to day; we hold our breath every time they have a big seizure, and we prepare for the worst,” she said. “We’ve held on to hope this whole time, and now we believe we have it.”

The bill did not receive a Senate vote on July 6, but the mothers are motivated to push for it to be approved sooner rather than later. Because the medical bill could save lives, they’d like representatives to hold a special session.

“Families that have given children this oil are seeing immediate results,” O’Meara said. “Some who have seen 100 seizures a day are seeing none. Their kids are sitting up and babbling.”

Corner Deli closes, set to reopen in 2016

Perhaps the biggest news coming out of the first quarter of the year was the headline saying a longtime Main Street mainstay, the Corner Deli, would be closing up shop.

Owner Jennifer Costantini, who had worked in the deli since she was 11 years old, said in January that the closing was bittersweet but was the right move for her and her family.

“It’s time,” Costantini said. “I’m 50 years old. I thought, If I don’t do it now, when will I?”

Costantini, who purchased the deli from her father, Robert Patrignelli, in the 1990s, has a new job and finished up her EMT training earlier in the year with plans to volunteer with Trumbull EMS.

As for her customers, who were sad to see the business close on Jan. 30, they got some reportedly good news in late October when the town announced Corner Deli was set to reopen again in the spring under new management.

Massimo Colandrea, a Trumbull resident and owner of Massimo’s in Bridgeport, was taking over the building that has been a Trumbull staple for generations.

“I always wanted to open a business in my own town, so I was very excited when the Corner Deli became available,” said Colandrea. “My family and I will be completely renovating the space, and will be adding our own signature look and flavor there, including espresso, cappuccino, Italian pastries, and paninis.”

Trumbull Day tradition changed

Trumbull’s Fall Festival received a major facelift in 2015, pairing Trumbull Day — a celebration typically held in June — with the Trumbull Arts Festival.

First Selectman Tim Herbst said that in recent years, participation had declined with the event being held at the end of June. The two reasons he cited for the decline were families on summer vacation and the town of Trumbull competing with many other area events. Herbst said moving the event would mean better turnout and less competition with other events.

Trumbull Day was on hiatus for a few years before returning in 2013. The event was typically held in late June, holding fireworks before the July 4 holiday.

Herbst also addressed the Trumbull Day Commission and what he called a “lack of engagement.”

“There have been a tremendous number of resignations from the commission within the last several months,” he said. “There are not enough members to constitute a quorum and hold regular meetings. Further, both political parties have not sent nominations to my office for this commission in more than a year.

“Based upon this lack of engagement, lack of quorum and lack of interest, my administration has determined that we must move forward with providing our residents with an annual festival that integrates all of the elements of Trumbull Day with a weekend that celebrates our community as a whole,” Herbst said. “I have every confidence that this festival will become an annual tradition that allows us to have pride in our past so we may have faith in our future.”

After significant budget cuts, the town was able to line up food vendors, a beer garden, live music, and fireworks for the September celebration.

It is unknown at this point where Trumbull Day will land in 2016.

Heroin overdoses rise, Narcan used to fight back

Perhaps nothing shocked Trumbull more in 2015 than the dramatic uptick in heroin overdoses — a problem that until April 2015 had been underreported and ignored by many.

In that month alone, Trumbull police said, officers responded to three near-fatal heroin overdoses over a two-week period.

And things didn’t get much better as the year went on.

Five men overdosed on heroin between July 14 and Nov. 9 — three between Oct. 18 and Nov. 9.

Fortunately, in all eight of those cases, the police department’s naloxone training was put to good use as officers helped revive every single victim.

Naloxone, better known as Narcan, is an opiate antagonist that temporarily reverses the depression of the respiratory system and allow the person to breathe more effectively.

Reports show that the state had 257 heroin deaths in 2013 and 307 in 2014. Some projected those numbers to double in 2015.

Heroin is not necessarily a city problem. Statistics show the typical user is a white suburban male, who may not be aware what he is using.

In response to the rise in heroin use and heroin overdoses, First Selectman Tim Herbst started a Drug Prevention Task Force that kicked off with a special meeting at Town Hall in July.

“There is a problem here and we need to acknowledge it,” Herbst said to the room of 20-plus people. “We’re not going to put our head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening. We have to acknowledge it and tackle it head on.”

Businesses move into new shopping centers

Who says Trumbull isn’t a hub for economic prosperity?

Shopping centers — Madison Village and Long Hill Green — showed in 2015 that the town has the ability to attract new businesses.

At Madison Village, Pure Poetry gift shop, Ninety9 Bottles liquor store and The Sitting Duck Tavern have already opened their doors with heavy traffic. Still to come in the development next year: Romanacci Pizzeria and Upper Crust Bakery.

Over at Long Hill, a Tex-Mex restaurant coming in 2016 opened up a naming contest for the community this summer before settling on the name Mex on Main.

Elsewhere in town, Crown Pizza brought Brazilian flair to Trumbull and Ring’s End announced it was opening its doors in Trumbull Center.

Honorable mention

Like any year-end list, The Times’ Top 10 for 2015 includes some headlines that are worthy of honorable mention.

  • Thomas Infante: Former Public Works employee accused of murdering his wife in Shelton.

  • Robert McGowan: Newly elected Town Council member accused of vehicular manslaughter in New Jersey; forced to resign from his District 2 seat.

  • Body of St. Maria Goretti: The ‘Pilgrimage of Mercy’ tour made its only Connecticut stop at St. Theresa Church on Main Street Oct. 6