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FOX 13s Top 13 Stories of 2020 - #1 One-thousand deaths

Analiza (Ana) Banez Scholes
Posted at 11:55 AM, Dec 16, 2020
and last updated 2021-01-01 20:12:59-05

SALT LAKE CITY — 2020. It's the new 4-letter word that parents will forbid their children to speak.

COVID-19, pandemic, coronavirus. Three words that will live in infamy (to borrow a phrase) for all eternity.

From north to south, east to west, Utahns dealt with the best and worst 2020 threw at them with flying colors, with one eye, of course, on the countdown clock to 2021.

And speaking of countdown, 2020 deserves an audit of the top stories of the year. So each day until Dec. 31, FOX 13 will be counting down the Top 13 Stories of 2020.

The stories may not be the most important or the ones most remembered in a decade, but they share one common theme: They happened to Utah in one of the strangest years of all time.

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ONE-THOUSAND DEATHS

The personal side of Utah's 1,000 deaths

No one could have imagined when the year began that Utah would lose over 1,000 residents to a virus most of the state was unaware of.

By the end of the year, 1,269 Utahns had died of causes related to COVID-19.

All had those who loved them.

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THE EARTH SHAKES

Magna Main Street clean up after earthquake

At 7:09 a.m. on Wednesday, March 18, many Utahns were awaken by the ground shaking and walls rumbling as the state experienced it's strongest earthquake in nearly three decades.

The 5.7 magnitude earthquake centered near Magna was a literal wake up call that 2020 was going to be unlike any other in Utah's history.

In the aftermath, with their neighborhoods damaged, some called the Magna main street area a "war zone."

“Everybody is just really nervous, but we’ve gotten to where we are starting to calm down,” said store owner C.J. Withers.

Bricks fell from buildings in downtown Salt Lake City as the Utah State Capitol raised it's readiness level to Level 1 Emergency.

Thankfully, no deaths were reported and injuries were minor, but residents suffered from a lack of power and the temporary closing of the Salt Lake City International Airport.

By the end of the year, some of the damage has been repaired, but aftershocks continue and businesses hurt by a double-whammy of the pandemic and earthquake were forced to shutter.

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PROTEST DAY

Protesters gather at the State Capitol to protest police brutality

Nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer made their way to Utah on May 30.

What started as a peaceful protest around the Capitol and Washington Square turned more violent as a few demonstrators vandalized public property, including the flipping over a police car and setting it on fire.

While only lasting a day, the protests led to conversations and investigations into how Utah law enforcement deals with civil unrest. A review board recommended additional training for Salt Lake City Police officers when dealing with violent crowds, and that officials should not arrive at protests in militarized vehicles.

FOX 13 anchor Brian Schnee covered the events of May 30 and shares his personal thoughts:

"The images of May 30, 2020 will stay engraved in me following six hours of consecutive, live coverage of protests in downtown Salt Lake City.

Earlier that day, I went into downtown to check on our news crews before violence and destruction broke out. Later that night, my vantage point of the protest took place from our FOX 13 anchor desk sharing our coverage with all of you.

During months that followed, I spent many days and nights walking alongside demonstrators, speaking with those carrying signs and voicing their concerns, while trying to share the reality of the situation in both Utah and around the country.

I witnessed groups, who previously didn’t get along, come together. I witnessed Utah’s National Guard move throughout the downtown area. I witnessed hugs and countless positive exchanges from demonstrators and local law enforcement. I witnessed policy change as announced by our local leaders but shortly followed by incidents that sparked more outrage from groups of protesters. I witnessed the right to peacefully assemble and spoke with those who pleaded for change and accountability.

Perhaps 2021 will bring us more opportunities to come together and make our world a better place for all."

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THE WORST NEWS

On June 10, the worst nightmare came true for a family and those who held out hope that two missing children would be found alive.

June 10 was the day it was officially announced that the remains of 7-year-old Joshua "JJ" Vallow and 17-year-old Tylee Ryan were discovered on the property of Chad Daybell, nearly six months after they had last been seen.

The discovery was another chapter in the sordid saga that played in out the latter part of 2019 and the first half of 2020, a period in which the country learned the exploits of Chad and Lori Daybell.

FOX 13 reporter Lauren Steinbrecher shares her personal memories of the discovery of the bodies:

"For me, this wasn't just a "story of the year" to cover, this truly became my life for so many months from when I awoke until I went to sleep.

Spending hours upon hours working every story lead, sifting through thousands of Facebook comments for any glimmer of info or a new connection, trips to Idaho spent knocking on doors and piecing things together on-the-ground, constantly reaching out to authorities.

I saw amazing journalists from different states working in unison and helping each other out, all with the common goal of figuring out what happened to JJ and Tylee. Multiple people at our station spent countless hours investigating every facet of Chad and Lori's lives.

I broke down crying and grieved for JJ and Tylee when their remains were found.

I felt physically ill reading the court documents.

I'm grateful that JJ's sweet grandparents and Tylee's wonderful aunt, whom I've gotten to know through this process, finally got some piece of closure. We can thank the power of technology and cellphone data for that. But what happened to these two kids will truly stay with me forever, not just as a journalist but as a human being trying to comprehend the horrible ending to these beautiful children's lives."

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WE ARE NOT ALONE

You know something’s a big deal when the entire country forgets about a catastrophic pandemic, false allegations of election fraud and whatever else ails us to focus on a barely 10-foot-tall metal object found in the far reaches of Utah.

Utah monolith mystery explained

But hey, it’s 2020 so all bets are off when it comes to strange monoliths that appear during sheep counting hunts.

On November 18, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources sprang the news that a team of Utah biologists surveying bighorn sheep saw a shiny object off in the distance. Minutes later, the biologists set down their helicopter and discovered an obelisk that would soon set off a firestorm of mystery.

At first, officials attempted to play it cool by refusing to announce the location of the silver object. But it took mere days for amateur sleuths to discover its location about 20 miles southwest of Moab.

Utah monolith site damage example of bad behavior on public lands

Soon, the world was abuzz over the discovery and what it meant for human civilization. Did it portend an event of enormous proportions, or was it simply a prank that had gone viral?

And then as soon as the monolith appeared in our lives, it disappeared on Nov. 28 with two people claiming responsibility for removing the mysterious object that gave us such joy. Nevertheless, the site of the monolith, even with it missing, became a tourist attraction onto itself.

Within days of its disappearance, imitation monoliths began appearing in places such as Romania, Las Vegas and San Francisco. But whoever said you never forget your first was right.

Don’t cry that it’s over. Smile that it happened it all.

FOX 13 reporter Lauren Steinbrecher shares her Monolith memories:

"Amid political division and the under the weight of COVID-19, the Utah Monolith (or God's Rod, Satan's Staff, whatever you want to call it) literally brought the entire world together to marvel at its mystery and speculate its origin, even if for just a moment (aliens? art? secret government project?

2001: A Space Odyssey irl?).

I happened to camp on the road that leads out to the now fallen monolith back in September, and I know Lockhart Basin Road just from having researched the area for a future 4x4 trip. That was fun to make the connection when I found out the location!

But I also know this road is not for regular cars or visitors with little off-road, off-the-grid expertise.

I wondered how that would go, as the masses from all over swarmed the area. According to the BLM, it went poorly. The monolith's life after discovery was short-lived, but certainly was fun while it lasted."

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END OF AN ERA

The words “End of an Era” are thrown around rather loosely these days. But for once, the saying rang true when the Miller family stunned the entire state in October when they announced it would be selling the NBAs Utah Jazz.

Up until that point, Larry and Gail Miller had owned the state’s only major professional franchise for 35 years. But as Gail said on Oct. 28, “Today is a day I have never been able to imagine.”

The Millers sold the franchise to Qualtrics founder Ryan Smith and his wife Ashley for a reported $1.66 billion. The deal includes Vivint Smart Home Arena, the G League Salt Lake City Stars and management of Triple-A baseball's Salt Lake Bees.

While the Millers will retain a minority stake in the team, their ownership will remain a standard for which other professional sports owners hope to match.

The Jazz never won an NBA championship during their stewardship, but the memories they brought to fans across the state over three decades will be remembered longer than any banner that could ever hang from the rafters.

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THE RACE

The 2020 elections will be known for one race and one race only.

No, not that one. (Okay, probably that one).

But in Utah, the mud was slinging between Democratic incumbent Ben McAdams and Republican challenger Burgess Owens as they battled for the House seat in the state’s 4 th Congressional District.

Rejected campaign ads, accusations of QAnon acceptance and order-taking from Nancy Pelosi. It was all there for voters to see through a campaign season that seem to go on forever.

On Election Day, the race between the first-term congressman and the former NFL player was considered to be a close one, and it didn’t let anyone down.

While the majority of races across Utah were called almost within minutes of polls closing, McAdams and Owens went back and forth as more and more ballots were counted.

At first, McAdams took the lead, then Owens. Neither candidate grew a lead that was considered safe, and both waited for daily vote tallies to see whether a deficit would become a lead, or vice-versa.

In the end, Owens was victorious by just the slimmest of margins, with only 3765 votes more than McAdams.

McAdams seemed to have to say goodbye to Washington, DC just as quickly as he arrived. For Owens, his start in Congress received a major boost when President Trump called him a “star.”

FOX 13s Max Roth shares his thoughts on the McAdams-Owens race during a crazy election season

"In terms of elections, district 4 is a jumble of memories that tell us two things:

  1. Utah is still red enough to send a monolithic delegation to DC, and
  2. The margins, making it harder to draw maps that make four congressional districts securely red.

Congressional districts are fleeting. Unless you live in a state with just one, like Wyoming, the map changes every ten years. That's the ONLY fun fact about most districts, because they are drawn to be dull.

But not District 4 in Utah. 5 elections have given us 4 members of Congress...2 Democrats and 2 Republicans. The technical term for that in political science circles is "bizarro."

In the old days of Tip O'Neals universally acknowledged truism, "All politics is local," District 4's biennial nail-biter might be refreshing.

But if District 4 proved anything this year, it's that all politics is now national.

If you've forgotten all the ads, congratulations. You can stop reading here so I don't trigger unpleasant memories.

Those of you who remember the ads might have noticed two themes.

Ben McAdams theme was personal: I'm nice and you like me and who cares about parties anyway and did you hear that my opponent is irresponsible with money and might be ok with more nuclear testing near your house?

Burgess Owens theme was ideological: I'm with you and the President, and he's with them and the Speaker, and did you hear that he missed three meetings and that might be why China is still abusing human rights?

After 10 years, District 4 will crawl into a coccoon and emerge as some other strangely shaped creature, but let me now abandon the butterfly metaphor.

Because District 4 was a deceptive young chameleon all along.

In it's first go round, it's color tranformed in the presence of Utah's Democratic dynasty: Jim Matheson moseyed in with his cowboy boots, moderate record, and memories of his popular father, Governor Scott Matheson.

In it's fourth go-round, the chameleon turned blue next to a tsunami of backlash to President Donald Trump.Riled up Democrats, independents and "Never-Trump" Republicans went to polling places to send a message, and a popular, moderate county mayor named Ben McAdams made it an easy box to check.

(For the literary critics, yes my metaphor is weird. A tiny tree dwelling lizard next to a tsunami. My response: think about how we draw districts. Don't blame the metaphor for the weirdness!)

In 2018 McAdams beat a 2 term incumbent who had developed a national profile. Side by side, Mia Love had credentials Burgess Owens did not. But she was lukewarm about a polarizing president. The tsunami propelled McAdams.

In 2018 Republicans and Democrats were motivated. No tsunami, just high seas, and in Utah it's still a red sea."

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WILD KINGDOM

Caught on Video: Orem man records tense mountain lion encounter in Slate Canyon

There’s nothing like an enjoyable day in the Utah wilderness, enjoying everything the great outdoors on a beautiful day.

Well, unless there’s a mountain lion tracking your every move, of course.

Back in October, Kyle Burgess was hiking Slate Canyon when he came across some mountain lion kittens.

Cute, sure, but then mom got wind of what was going on.

“I didn’t really know what kind of cubs they were or what animal they were,” said Burgess. "Once I did realize what they were, I was like, that’s mom right there. I’m screwed.”

Burgess soon noticed he was being trailed by the mother mountain lion, and for a long, long time.

For over six minutes, the animal tailed Burgess as he continued to hike down the trail. At one point, video appeared to show the mountain lion lunging towards its presumed foe.

Finally, Burgess did what officials say to do when confronted by a mountain lion, he made himself “bigger” and made a lot of noise before bending down and throwing a rock at the animal which quickly
scurried away.

Burgess and his video soon went viral and his adventure was featured on television shows around the world. It was a hike for the ages, or maybe one that aged Burgess quite a few years.

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ACCUSATIONS AND ALLEGATIONS

Dell Loy Hansen Accused of Racially Insensitive Comments

At a time when racial inequality set off protests in Utah and throughout the country, the owner of Salt Lake City’s massively popular soccer organization threw gas on the fire.

In an August radio interview, Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen complained that his players protested and refused to play a schedule game against LAFC.

"The disrespect was profound to me, personally," said Hansen on a radio station he owns. "It's taken a lot of wind out of my sails on how much I want to invest in the team -- buying players and building the
team."

Cries for Hansen to leave went up instantly, from such local favorites as Utah Jazz All-Star Donovan Mitchell who told the owner he might as well sell the team.

Days later, Hansen announced that he would do just that, along with the ownership of the Utah Royals and Real Monarchs.

And then things got even worse.

Multiple people claimed the RSL organization was one where racism and sexism were rampant.

Employees said Hansen mimicked black employees in front of others at a company event, while a former player, Andy Williams, did not hold back, saying “It’s Donald Sterling part two. It’s just unbelievable. It’s
crazy how he doesn’t see that the stuff that he says affects people.”

Days later, RSL executive Andy Carroll took a leave of absence following allegations of sexist behavior and other types of workplace misconduct. Both he and Hansen became the subjects of an MLS investigation.

Since then, the Utah Royals have moved to Kansas City and Hansen has yet to sell Real Salt Lake. The MLS says its investigation is complete, but has yet to release the results.

FOX 13 reporter Lauren Steinbrecher shares her memories of covering the allegations into the RSL organization

When I reported on that August 26th game, and subsequently it's postponement, no one had any idea this was just the beginning of the massive tumult that would unfold over the next week.

Suddenly, whistleblowers from RSL and another company as well, began reaching out to me through social media. I don't normally report on anything sports-related, so I was surprised to end up in the middle of sorting through all of this.

I spent a few days vetting everyone and having long conversations where they told specific stories and detailed issues dating back years. We ended up reporting on those issues.

I did speak briefly with Hansen on the phone, though I wasn't able to report our conversation on-the-record. Same with Andy Carroll.

When I showed up to cover the September 2 game exactly a week later, so much had happened.

Through all the fallout, the fans were in good spirits. They expressed they wanted to support the players and if what was alleged was truly happening behind the scenes, they were glad it was brought to light.

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HURRICANE HITS UTAH?

Windstorm hits parts of SLC hard; Emergency declared

Of course 2020 was the year it felt like northern Utah was hit by a hurricane, or the closest thing to one.

On Sept. 8, the winds were so strong that even Dorothy and the Wicked Witch were like, no, we’re sitting this one out.

Winds in the rare windstorm reached up to 99 miles per hour in parts of the state.

Massive trees were downed like twigs from Salt Lake City to Park Lane to Weber Canyon. Roofs were damaged and power outages covered vast areas of the state.

The cleanup took weeks, if not months, as utility companies dealt with desperate customers and crews faced the mammoth task of hauling away trees that had stood for decades.

For comparison, the maximum winds measured on that September day would have reached Category 2 hurricane status if the windstorm was a tropical system.

Weather and Mother Nature are no strangers to Utah, but the windstorm that struck the Beehive State this fall was one no one will ever forget.

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THE "JOYS" OF REMOTE LEARNING

Along with learning what the omnipresent phrase “unprecedented times” actually means, 2020 was also the year that pretty much all Utah parents added teacher to their resumes.

When the pandemic hit, Utah joined the rest of the country in shutting down in-person classes and began a remote learning journey that tested the souls of teachers, students and yes, their parents.

With daily COVID-19 cases bottoming out over the summer, many were excited to reopen closed doors and have everyone return to the classroom; and for a while, it worked.

But as cases continued to rise to dangerous levels in the fall, people began to question the logic of crowding people into schools across Utah, which could lead to higher positivity rates. That led some schools to switch back to remote learning.

And what at first was a trickle became a deluge as entire school districts shut down in-classroom learning… “allowing” parents to once again become teacher aides in their own homes.

Confusion reigned as classrooms were closed, but sports continued while other extracurricular activities were banned. Then, parents in remote-only districts saw in-class districts and wanted the same for their children, no matter what the experts, doctors and scientists said.

As fall turned to winter, more and more protests sprang up demanding students be allowed to return to class, but as of yet, most remote districts have yet to budge.

No matter the side, one thing was made clear in 2020: Education is not easy and those who teach Utah’s children deserve the accolades they have often been missing.

FOX 13 anchor Amy Nay shares what this season of remote learning has been like for her or her family.

"What a year this has been! The pandemic has impacted us all in so many different ways. The biggest issue for me and so many other parents out there is how the pandemic has impacted our local schools.

When schools were shut down in March, so many of us had to figure out what to do next.

The transition to online school wasn’t easy. I know it was a challenge for parents and a whole new thing for teachers, many of whom had no idea when they left the classroom they wouldn’t be returning. I think many of us thought this was something that we would have a handle on by the time we’d be ready to have our kids back to school in the Fall.

But that wasn’t the case.

We were all impacted differently as school leaders and parents were faced with a number of tough decisions.

Some districts offered in-person classes. Some offered a hybrid of both in-person and virtual and some remained remote learning only. It’s one of the most important issues I was facing with four boys of my own in school, trying to figure out the best option for my family and wanting to hear about what other families had figured out and the reasoning behind administrators’ decisions.

I appreciated being a part of our in-depth coverage on this important issue, knowing the great impact of these changes, learning about the challenges other families faced and the safety concerns they had, the creative ways they were coming up with a balance, all the while giving our viewers the information they needed to make important decisions in their lives."

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FLYING HIGH

SLC's new airport excites travelers

The irony of opening a new airport during a pandemic which curtailed traveling by massive amounts was not lost on anyone.

Nevertheless, on September 15, Salt Lake City was treated to the debut of a gleaming airport built for a whopping $4 billion, of which not a single penny of local tax dollars were spent.

With 32 moving walkways, 31 escalators, and 65 escalators, getting around the new Salt Lake City Airport was never easier. Meanwhile, new shops and restaurants made waiting for arrivals or departures a joy instead of a chore.

Don’t forget the 24 new restrooms and charging stations at every seat. And seven miles of conveyor belts make baggage claim a breeze.

But perhaps the most magnificent aspect of the airport is “The Canyon,” a beautiful art installation by artist Gordon Huether that spans the entire length of the terminal.

Phase II of the new airport is expected to be completed by early 2025 and will welcome nearly 34 million passengers a year.

We all may dream of flying with the birds, soaring over our beautiful state. But the new Salt Lake City Airport means being grounded in the terminal no longer equates to a jail sentence.

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MYSTERY OF THE MISSING HIKER

Missing woman found safe in Zion National Park

Around Utah, it's not odd for someone to go missing while hiking the gorgeous country in the state. But the case of Holly Courtier was a little different.

Reported missing in Zion National Park on Oct. 6, Courtier was last seen getting dropped off by a private shuttle. Family said the 38-year-old Courtier was an experienced hiker, but did not leave a plan.

Teams were sent out to help find Courtier, but hope dwindled as days turned into almost two weeks.

However, this story had a happy ending when Courtier was found alive on Oct. 18, an incredible 12 days after she disappeared. But just as soon as Courtier appeared, she disappeared again, failing to truly explain what happened and how she survived without any food or water.

In an interview with CNN, Courtier's daughter said her mother became disoriented after she injured her head on a tree. Kailey Chambers says her mom was too weak from no food to seek help.

Chambers added her mother had been able to survive by drinking from a nearby river, an account disputed by Coutier's sister who said Holly did not drink from the river due to it possibly being toxic.

Inconsistencies in Courtier's accounts and those of her family have led the Washington County Sheriff's Office to investigate the story of her survival.

"These inconsistencies raised some questions as to the authenticity of the events as reported to law enforcement." said Sheriff Cory C. Pulsipher in the statement.

As of the end of the year, officials have yet to announce the results of any investigation.