A look back at 2019's biggest news stories in the Fox Valley

  • The body of missing Crystal Lake 5-year-old AJ Freund was recovered from a field near Woodstock April 24, less than a week after his parents reported his disappearance. The boy's parents, JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr., were ultimately charged with his murder.

    The body of missing Crystal Lake 5-year-old AJ Freund was recovered from a field near Woodstock April 24, less than a week after his parents reported his disappearance. The boy's parents, JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr., were ultimately charged with his murder.

 
Daily Herald report
Posted12/30/2019 6:00 AM

Here's a look back at some of the biggest news stories in 2019 in the Fox Valley:

The death of AJ Freund

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The body of missing Crystal Lake 5-year-old AJ Freund was recovered from a field near Woodstock April 24, less than a week after his parents reported his disappearance. The boy's parents, JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr., were ultimately charged with his murder. Cunningham pleaded guilty Dec. 5 and faces up to 60 years in prison. The boy's father remains in jail awaiting trial. Police said the boy's father admitted AJ was dead after police recovered video that had been deleted from Cunningham's phone showing the aftermath of a beating the boy suffered for wetting the bed, which was taken a month before his death. Freund Sr. told investigators on the day AJ was killed, Cunningham forced AJ to endure a 20-minute cold shower and beat him about the head for lying about hiding soiled underwear. Days after AJ's murder, his father admitted to burying his body in the field.

Historic moment in Elgin

The Elgin City Council included two Latino members for the first time in its history after the May swearing in of Baldemar Lopez, who joined Rose Martinez and seven other city council members. The event was significant for the city where 45% of 112,000 or so residents are Hispanic/Latino, according to 2017 U.S. Census estimates. Lopez also was the first Latino elected in Elgin without first being appointed. The first Latino council member in Elgin was George Castillo, who was appointed and served in 1983. Juan Figueroa, appointed in 1999, was the first Latino to win an election two years later. Martinez also was appointed before being elected in 2015.

Elgin Police Lt. Chris Jensen was reinstated to full duty, with no discipline, in September after he fatally shot resident Decynthia Clements in March 2018.
Elgin Police Lt. Chris Jensen was reinstated to full duty, with no discipline, in September after he fatally shot resident Decynthia Clements in March 2018.
Elgin police officer reinstated

Elgin Police Lt. Chris Jensen was reinstated to full duty, with no discipline, in September after he fatally shot resident Decynthia Clements in March 2018. The lieutenant was to oversee the police department's 911 communications center after the decision by Police Chief Ana Lalley and City Manager Rick Kozal. Clements had a standoff with police and exited the car holding two knives. The shooting roiled the city for nearly 18 months, as activists advocated for Jensen's firing and in May gathered 1,600 signatures on a petition to that effect. At one point, they put up a billboard asking for justice for Clements. The Elgin police union put up its own billboard expressing support for Jensen. Jensen was found justified in using deadly force by the Cook County state's attorney's office and by a consultant hired by the city.

FX series 'Fargo' filmed in Elgin

The fourth season of the popular FX television series "Fargo" was partly filmed in Elgin's historic Gifford Park neighborhood in December. Filming was done outside the Elgin History Museum and along College Street and North Street. The storyline features two dueling crime families, one black and one Italian, in 1950 in Kansas City, and includes actors Chris Rock, Jason Schwartzman, Uzo Aduba, Jessie Buckley, Timothy Olyphant, Salvatore Esposito and Chicago native Andrew Bird. The series by Redhawk Productions IV LLC, in association with MGM, will be released sometime in 2020.

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Sugar Grove development controversy

Prominent real estate company Crown Development asks to build big distribution center complex on 760 acres of farmland and woods near I-88 and Route 47. But hundreds of residents attend multiple hearings to oppose it, and developer withdraws the proposal. The fuss leads to two trustees losing in the April election, as two anti-big-development people backed by the protesters are elected to the village board. However, Crown still owns the land, is still talking to village officials, and residents remain concerned that Crown may be trying to revive the proposal, either with Sugar Grove or with neighbor Elburn.

The future of St. Charles' iconic Pheasant Run Resort is uncertain. Management this fall announced plans to reduce its staff by more than 75% amid an anticipated restructuring.
  The future of St. Charles' iconic Pheasant Run Resort is uncertain. Management this fall announced plans to reduce its staff by more than 75% amid an anticipated restructuring. - Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer
Pheasant Run announces restructuring plans

Pheasant Run management this fall announced plans to reduce its staff by more than 75% amid an anticipated restructuring at the iconic St. Charles resort.

The layoffs, expected to take place by mid-January, are the result of Pheasant Run owners' decision to scale back operations in the offseason while "pursuing various options" for the site, Hostmark Hospitality Group representatives said.

The future of the 56-year-old resort is uncertain, but St. Charles officials say they believe the property offers plenty of development opportunities that could help revive the eastern gateway to the city. "We want to be a partner in making something happen," City Administrator Mark Koenen said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Separation notices began being delivered to employees in November, Hostmark leaders said. Pheasant Run is expected to honor existing reservations through February.

A father-son development team from St. Charles has purchased the building that houses the Arcada Theatre at 105 E. Main St.
  A father-son development team from St. Charles has purchased the building that houses the Arcada Theatre at 105 E. Main St. - Rick West | Staff Photographer
A year of progress at the Arcada

In March, the historic Arcada Theater in St. Charles was shut down for a day to address a number of life-safety issues.

Operator Ron Onesti continued investing time and money into the 93-year-old building and was able to remedy about two-thirds of the concerns identified in an independent inspection, city officials said. But his vision for improving the theater truly started coming to life when the site was sold May 3 to a father-son team, Frontier Development.

Curt and Conrad Hurst quickly got to work on making the theater more comfortable and stepping up the experience for patrons and performers, they said. They began pursuing plans to expand theater operations into the former George's Sport Center next door -- a building purchased by the city seven years ago in hopes of finding a use that would complement the Arcada.

The city council this fall agreed to convey the property to Frontier at no cost in exchange for the planned improvements, which include additional bathrooms, offices, suites for special guests, and a first-floor piano bar and lounge, which would be run by Onesti. The work is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2020.

New St. Charles police station opens

The St. Charles Police Department moved into a new state-of-the-art station, designed to prioritize workflow, community space and high-end equipment.

The 56,000-square-foot facility at 1515 W. Main St. includes a wellness center, a community room, strategically placed interview rooms and various other features that make the space more operationally efficient than the department's previous headquarters downtown. The new station also contains design elements that blend the city's past and present, including symbolic murals, historic photos and the department's mission statement.

The project was completed ahead of schedule and under the estimated $24.6 million budget, police officials said. The facility became fully operational in September.

Legionnaires' outbreak in Batavia

Fifteen confirmed cases of Legionnaires' disease were reported this year in the Batavia area, most of which involved residents at Covenant Living at the Holmstad.

The first cases were reported Aug. 30, prompting environmental testing to be conducted and control measures to be implemented at all possible sources of exposure to the Legionella bacteria. By October, 13 cases had been reported at the senior living facility, 700 W. Fabyan Parkway, and two others involved residents from Geneva and Batavia who live nearby.

Legionnaires' disease is a serious lung infection that people can get by breathing in small droplets of water containing Legionella bacteria.

Outbreaks are most commonly associated with buildings or structures that have complex water systems, such as hotels, hospitals or long-term care facilities.

The Fox Valley Women's March took place January in Geneva. The rally started at the historic Kane County Courthouse and they marched to South Street.
  The Fox Valley Women's March took place January in Geneva. The rally started at the historic Kane County Courthouse and they marched to South Street. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer
Women's March in Geneva

Geneva was among hundreds of communities across the world to host demonstrations in January aimed at promoting women's rights and spurring social change.

The Fox Valley Women's March was put on by leaders of a pair of grass-roots organizations who were energized by a wave of activism sparked by the global movement. Ahead of the consolidated election this past spring, organizers said they hoped the march would encourage residents to be politically engaged in their communities.

Women's March Chicago opted out of a 2019 march, choosing to instead promote an "Operation Activation" campaign urging participants to get involved locally. Hundreds of residents from the Fox Valley and beyond embraced the call to action by attending the Geneva event, spearheaded by the Kane County Coalition and We Can Lead Change-Fox Valley.

A second annual march and rally is planned for Jan. 18, 2020, in downtown Geneva.

Wahlburgers takes shape in St. Charles

Celebrity Donnie Wahlberg's vision of opening a St. Charles location of his family's burger chain is coming to life.

A ceremonial groundbreaking was held in March for the new Wahlburgers at Route 38 and Randall Road, which was granted city council approval the previous summer. The long-awaited restaurant and bar began taking shape this year and is expected to begin operating in the spring.

The Massachusetts-based burger chain was co-founded by Wahlberg, who lives in St. Charles, and his two brothers, actor Mark and executive chef Paul. Though they typically target big cities for their Wahlburgers locations, Wahlberg wanted to bring the business venture to the town he now calls home with celebrity wife Jenny McCarthy.

The storyline of the St. Charles location has been featured on episodes of the "Wahlburgers" TV show, along with appearances from Mayor Ray Rogina and other local leaders.

Family rescued from Fox River

A family of three stranded on the Fox River this summer was rescued by St. Charles firefighters just 40 seconds before their disabled boat plunged over the dam.

First responders knew time would be of the essence when the call came in at 1:21 p.m. on June 30. The motor had failed, the anchor wasn't holding and the vessel was drifting toward the dam, they said. And what was already a dicey situation was made worse by an abrupt downpour and heavy winds.

Despite the elements, crew members were able to successfully launch a rescue boat at Pottawatomie Park and safely transport the couple and their teenage son to shore. About 40 seconds later, the boat tumbled over the dam and capsized.

U-46 settles Sembdner lawsuit

Elgin Area School District U-46 agreed to pay $1.5 million to the family of Henry Sembdner, a South Elgin boy who suffered brain trauma during a beating by a Kenyon Woods Middle School classmate in 2017, as part of a settlement agreement.

The Sembdners' lawsuit against U-46 was dismissed with prejudice on Oct. 29 as a result of both parties reaching an agreement on Oct. 21. The agreement did not constitute any admission of fault, responsibility or liability on the part of the U-46 school board.

The $1.5 million lump-sum payment includes the cost of the Sembdners' legal fees. Money will be put into an account that Henry cannot access until he is 18, according to court records.

Henry, now 15, is a sophomore at South Elgin High School. He was 12 and a Kenyon Woods seventh-grader at the time of the February 2017 attack that left him unconscious. He was assaulted in a school hallway where there were no security cameras after he and his attacker bumped into each other. The attacker picked Henry up and slammed him to the ground headfirst, rendering him unconscious and putting him in a coma for five days. The 14-year-old who attacked Henry pleaded guilty to battery in July 2017. He was sentenced in juvenile court to 12 months of probation and was ordered to complete 100 hours of community service. He also had to undergo counseling and had to write an apology letter to Henry.

New report card data shows school spending

For the first time, the 2019 Illinois Report Card included site-based per-pupil expenditures, as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. The data showed vast differences across the suburbs in how funding is allocated potentially raising questions about fairness and equity.

Daily Herald research found early childhood centers the biggest spenders across the board, and some suburban schools with significantly high low-income populations were spending more than wealthier counterparts.

Common reasons for spending differences are additional resources allocated for special programs and student populations, such as dual language programs and gifted and special needs students; school size; and districts' priority investments.

The goal of providing this new data is to encourage questions and urge school districts to have those deeper conversations about equity, funding priorities, and why and how resources are allocated with their communities, state education officials said.

Caroline Kennedy headlines Judson forum

Caroline Kennedy headlined Judson University's annual World Leaders Forum in October at the Schaumburg Convention Center.

Kennedy, 61, spoke about her legacy of service and love for reading poetry, which she inherited from her famous parents, former President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

"I had great models and role models in my family," said Kennedy, the only surviving child of JFK and a progressive Democrat.

Kennedy was interviewed by conservative cultural commentator Eric Metaxas, a nationally syndicated radio host and founder and host of "Socrates in the City," an acclaimed series of conversations on "life, God and other small topics."

Kennedy said she was encouraged by her family to follow her passions. She is an author, lawyer, and diplomat and has dedicated much of her life to serving in education and the arts. She said her mother passed down her love of reading, poetry, literature, mythology and history to her children. She also spoke about serving as a former U.S. ambassador to Japan during President Barack Obama's administration.

Elgin High School students outside the gymnasium addition in 1953. Elgin High School's alumni, retired and current employees, and students marked the school's 150th anniversary this year with a "Sesquicentennial Celebration" in April.
Elgin High School students outside the gymnasium addition in 1953. Elgin High School's alumni, retired and current employees, and students marked the school's 150th anniversary this year with a "Sesquicentennial Celebration" in April. - Courtesy of Elgin Area School District U-46
Elgin High celebrates 150 years

Elgin High School's alumni, retired and current employees, and students marked the school's 150th anniversary this year with a "Sesquicentennial Celebration" in April.

Celebration attendees walked down memory lane during an "All-Class Reunion" and toured the former high school building at 355 E. Chicago St. -- now Elgin Area School District U-46's administrative headquarters -- and the current school at 1200 Maroon Drive, followed by a program in the school's auditorium. Officials unveiled a granite marker commemorating the school's history and had a special NASA presentation in the school's honor.

Elgin High has earned many distinctions in 150 years, including embracing desegregation early on and educating a former Nobel Prize winner. Inventors, novelists, actors, scientists, athletes, former Elgin public servants, and heads of prominent local and national corporations count among Elgin High's notable alumni with new names added every few years to the school's Hall of Fame.

It was Elgin's first public high school, formed in the fall of 1869, and is among Illinois' three oldest public schools and the nation's 100 oldest public high schools.

Elgin High School started with makeshift classrooms in what was known as the "Old Brick" building at Kimball and Center streets. Since then, three dedicated schools were built to house students.

The first class comprised 12 girls its first year. Its first graduating class of 1872 had only three graduates -- all were women. More than 43,000 students have graduated from the school since it opened.

Today, Elgin High's nearly 2,600 students are 75% Hispanic, nearly 10% white, nearly 5% Asian and nearly 7% black. Seventy-five percent of students come from low-income backgrounds and 22% are English language learners, according to the 2019 Illinois Report Card.

Why teen vaping is an epidemic

Health experts warn e-cigarette use among teenagers is quickly outpacing other substances, such as alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs and opioids.

And the rapid increase in teen vaping has caught many suburban school officials, law enforcement and health care workers by surprise.

Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim filed a lawsuit against Juul Labs, the leading manufacturer of vaping products.

Meanwhile, some suburban schools are bringing in experts to talk to students, parents and teachers about the dangers of vaping. Some schools installed monitors in bathrooms and locker rooms where students commonly vape.

Health officials are sounding the alarm in the wake of a rising death toll and hundreds of cases of teens and young adults nationwide being hospitalized with severe respiratory illnesses after vaping either nicotine or marijuana. Vaping symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, fever, vomiting and diarrhea.

Experts warn teens have been lulled into a false sense of security because vaping often is marketed on their social platforms as being safer than cigarettes. Alluring marketing, appealing flavors, a coolness factor and easy online access are among the reasons why vaping has exploded among youths, they say.

Investors sue Huntley over zoning denial for outlet mall redevelopment

An investment group seeking to redevelop the defunct Huntley Outlet Center site is suing the village of Huntley over a zoning dispute.

Huntley Investment Partners LLC filed a lawsuit July 2 against the village for denying its request to rezone the roughly 60-acre property to allow office, research, industrial/light manufacturing, warehouse storage and distribution uses. The site north of Interstate 90 and east of Route 47 currently is zoned for retail uses.

The property was purchased in April 2016 by Huntley Investment Partners LLC -- comprising Elgin's The Capital Companies LLC; Chicago-based The Prime Group, Inc., which built the center in 1994; and Craig Realty Group, a California-based development and management firm of upscale factory outlet centers.

They closed the 22-year-old outlet center about a year later. The village then sued its new owners to force them to fix code violations or raze the structure.

The group agreed to demolish the 279,000-square-foot outlet mall in the spring of 2018 at a $2 million cost in exchange for the village processing the rezoning application. The group then proposed erecting three speculative warehouse/distribution buildings ranging in size from 177,320 to 245,280 square feet on the property.

After endorsing conceptual plans for the project, Huntley trustees rejected final site plans in April, despite the village staff and plan commission recommending approval.

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