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Region stories find big audience on Internet

Sat., Dec. 31, 2011

Readers shared hundreds of Spokesman-Review news stories on Facebook and other social media in 2011.

As we prepare to ring in 2012, here’s a look back at The Spokesman-Review stories that found most favor with readers’ Internet friends and followers.

Gutsy wrangler

The heroic story of how Montana wrangler Erin Bolster and her cross-breed horse Tonk saved an 8-year-old boy from an attacking grizzly bear last summer quickly became the most-shared Spokesman-Review story of 2011. Bolster, 25, and Tonk backed down the charging grizzly not once but three times before the beast turned and ran. Outdoors editor Rich Landers wrote about the encounter in a Sept. 18 story that quickly went viral on social media platforms, transforming Bolster and Tonk into instant celebrities. The two were featured guests on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” whose self-deprecating host described the heroics on national television as the studio audience erupted in applause. Tonk made the trip to New York City in a climate-controlled rail car.

Unity March bomb

The discovery of a makeshift bomb laced with rat poison and tucked into a nondescript backpack along the intended route of Spokane’s annual march in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. brought the Inland Northwest’s painful past as a hotbed of violent racism back into the spotlight. But the community pulled together in demonstrating its resolve to keep moving forward. Reporter Thomas Clouse and others chronicled the developments throughout the year – from the city maintenance workers who found the bomb to the police officers who quickly changed the parade route to the federal agents who identified and apprehended the culprit. The bomber, white separatist Kevin W. Harpham, pleaded guilty to charges of targeting racial minorities in an attempt to use a weapon of mass destruction and was ordered this month to serve 32 years in prison.

Closure of Cyrus O’Leary’s

Downtown Spokane’s iconic restaurant served its last meal in 2011, another victim of the tattered economy. Owner Erkki Oranen broke the news to his employees during an emotional staff meeting in September that columnist Doug Clark brought to readers in a Sept. 8 column. The restaurant, a wildly popular fixture just a block off Riverfront Park, was the first in Spokane to feature an elaborate interior design that included hundreds of collectibles, ranging from an autographed Elvis poster to a vintage mechanical Ferris wheel. Many were auctioned off. Over its 31-year run, more than 8 million people dined at the restaurant, which also served free Thanksgiving Day meals to 8,000 of Spokane’s needy over the years.

Karl Thompson trial

The Nov. 2 conviction of now-former Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. on charges of using excessive force in the 2006 beating and death of janitor Otto Zehm and then lying about it to investigators sent shockwaves through the Inland Northwest. Thompson was the first officer to confront Zehm, who was mistakenly identified as a possible thief, and immediately began beating him with a police baton inside a Spokane convenience store. Thompson told jurors Zehm was preparing to attack him and refused orders to drop a plastic 2-liter bottle of soda; witnesses said no words were exchanged between the men before the first strikes were delivered to Zehm’s head, body and legs. The Zehm case, specifically the city’s handling of the investigation and response, which federal prosecutors described at one point as an “extensive cover-up,” sparked calls for reform that have been fought by much of the police force and became a contentious issue in this fall’s municipal elections. Thompson, 64, is scheduled to learn Jan. 27 how much time, if any, he will spend in federal prison for violating Zehm’s civil rights.

Trader Joe’s

Back in 2010, the first Spokesman-Review story to noticeably gain viral traction on social media platforms was the announcement that specialty grocer Trader Joe’s was eying the Inland Northwest as part of an expansion effort. Reader interest remained high in 2011 as well. A five-paragraph news brief announcing the Oct. 28 opening of Spokane’s first Trader Joe’s store quickly made the rounds on Facebook, Twitter and other digital media, making it the fifth-most shared Spokesman-Review story of the year.

Idaho abortions

The Idaho Legislature’s decision to ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy drew plenty of attention from all sides of the issue. Spokesman-Review reporter Betsy Russell’s coverage quickly spread on social media, marking Idaho’s emergence as the third state in the nation to ban late-term abortion on the basis of “fetal pain,” despite warnings from the state Attorney General’s Office that it likely would be considered unconstitutional. The state already has spent nearly $1 million unsuccessfully defending a previous attempt at banning abortion, and a legal challenge was filed in September against the new law, which provides no exceptions for pregnancies that result from rape or incest. State records indicate few late-term abortions were being provided in Idaho even when they were legal.

Face-pummeled skinhead

Score one for Karma. Self-proclaimed skinhead Daren Christopher Abbey pushed his racist ranting too far at a bar in Bayview, Idaho, one July night, telling a black patron, Marlon L. Baker, that he didn’t belong there because of his race. To avoid trouble, Baker left the bar, according to police, but Abbey followed him outside, continuing to hurl racial slurs and threatening to stab Baker. Baker, who was wearing a T-shirt that read “Spokane Boxing Club champion,” turned and pounded Abbey in the face, landing a single punch that broke bones and knocked Abbey to the ground unconscious. Reporter Meghann Cuniff’s story about the encounter, complete with a police mugshot of the bandaged skinhead, quickly circulated on the Internet. Kootenai County sheriff’s deputies concluded Baker was simply defending himself, and arrested Abbey on assault and malicious harassment charges. Abbey accepted a plea bargain earlier this month and is scheduled to be sentenced in March.

Candid cougar photos

A Wenatchee hunter who used a motion-activated camera to try capturing candid photos of bobcats instead ended up with a rare prize: a pride of eight mountain lions in a single frame. Wildlife experts told Outdoors Editor Rich Landers it was a scene few people will ever see in their lifetimes, and The Spokesman-Review’s story on the string of memorable images became a reader favorite as well. “Cougars are notoriously territorial,” state biologist Jon Gallie said in February. “Seeing eight in one spot is a wildlife jackpot.”

Web to the rescue

Patricia Ducham used to hate the computer games her husband, Robert Chambers, plays on Facebook but now credits the Internet pals with helping save his life. Chambers has limited movement because of muscular dystrophy and was unable to get to a telephone in July when his Spokane home began filling with smoke. What he could do was use his specialized computer mouse to get a message to his online gaming friends that his house was on fire and that he needed help. A gamer in Indiana advised Spokane firefighters, Meghann Cuniff reported in a Jan. 20 story, and they doused the small kitchen fire before it could spread.

Wolf escape

Sightings of a white wolf in the Hoodoo Valley area of North Idaho alarmed residents, particularly because it didn’t seem to be fearful of humans. There was a reason for that. As reporter Becky Kramer chronicled in a Sept. 15 story, the wolf had escaped from captivity at nearby Cocolalla but state game agents hadn’t been properly notified. Operators of Wolf People, a retail store that owned the animal, had distributed fliers advising of a “lost dog” that looked like a wolf. They later told some people they feared that public reaction to an escaped wolf would lead to its demise rather than recapture. The state was still weighing its options this fall over how to deal with the owners’ failure to report the wolf’s escape.

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