Tumbleweed trap, Norse pagan beard, polar plunge: News from around our 50 states

From USA TODAY Network and wire reports, USA TODAY


Mobile: The mayor says the city is taking corrective action after a police officer’s “inappropriate” social media post that appeared to ridicule homeless people. The Facebook post showed two Mobile Police Department officers holding what the post called a “homeless quilt” made of cardboard signs that apparently had been confiscated from panhandlers around the city, according to media outlet al.com. “Wanna wish everybody in the 4th precinct a Merry Christmas, especially our captain. Hope you enjoy our homeless quilt. Sincerely Panhandler patrol,” the post read. Mayor Sandy Stimpson said Mobile Police Chief Lawrence Battiste has apologized for the post. He said the city is taking corrective steps but did not elaborate.


Anchorage: Gov. Mike Dunleavy has established an eight-member oversight committee to monitor the sale of BP Plc assets in Alaska, officials said. The Republican governor said the panel will oversee the $5.6 billion sale to Hilcorp Energy Co., Alaska’s Energy Desk reports. Texas-based Hilcorp announced plans to buy BP’s Alaska assets in August. The companies expect to finalize the deal next year, giving Hilcorp a major stake in the Prudhoe Bay field and the trans-Alaska pipeline, two major projects in the state’s oil industry. Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Corri Feige will chair the committee that also will include Dunleavy senior policy adviser Brett Huber, according to gubernatorial spokesman Jeff Turner. Six other seats are expected to be filled by five state commissioners and Attorney General Kevin Clarkson or their representatives.


Phoenix: Police shootings in the city plunged over the past year amid increased scrutiny of the department and new policies aimed at controlling use of force. Phoenix officers shot 15 people through Dec. 30 – a dramatic drop from 2018, when police were involved in 44 shootings, half of them fatal. That was the largest number of police shootings for any department nationwide. The police shootings in 2019 are the lowest number in the city of 1.6 million. Community advocates say the improvement is the result of increased scrutiny and new policies. They say Phoenix police still need a civilian review board to increase accountability. The number of shootings across Arizona was also down from 117 in 2018 to about 50 in 2019, based on information from county attorney’s offices statewide. While fewer police shootings occurred in 2019, the shootings were more often deadly: 13 of the 15 resulted in death.


Little Rock: The American Civil Liberties Union and others on Monday asked the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to continue a ban temporarily blocking three state abortion restrictions. Federal Judge Kristine Baker has issued a preliminary injunction to prevent the state from enforcing the restrictions while a lawsuit challenging them is pending. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office is appealing Baker’s ruling. The laws present “insurmountable obstacles” to a woman seeking an abortion, ACLU attorney Meagan Burrows said in a statement. The laws prohibit the procedure 18 weeks into pregnancy, require that doctors performing abortions be board-certified or board-eligible in obstetrics and gynecology, and prohibit doctors from performing an abortion if it’s being sought because the fetus was diagnosed with Down syndrome.


Sacramento: State regulators said Tuesday that they have streamlined the state’s permit process to make it faster to approve tree-thinning projects designed to slow massive wildfires that have devastated communities in recent years. The state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection approved a vegetation management program based on more than a decade of analysis of the potential environmental damage from removing different types of fuel, ranging from alpine trees to chaparral. That will allow new projects to use the preapproved environmental analyses rather than starting fresh each time to meet the requirements of the California’s strict environmental laws. Gov. Gavin Newsom equated it to the emergency orders he issued nearly a year ago to speed up approval of 35 forest management projects intended to help protect more than 200 communities in high-risk areas.


Denver: The city is appealing a court ruling that found its urban camping ban to be unconstitutional. The city filed its notice of appeal Monday in Denver District Court following the Friday ruling by County Judge Johnny C. Barajas. The judge determined that the ban enacted in 2012 constitutes cruel and unusual punishment against the homeless. Barajas’ decision came in a case involving Jerry Burton, a homeless advocate, who had been cited for violating Denver’s ban. The city’s motion Monday seeks a stay of Barajas’ ruling pending appeal. He cited a 2018 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down a ban on camping in public places in Boise, Idaho. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that case. Denver voters rejected a ballot measure in May that would have overturned the camping ban.


Hartford: The state’s foster care system plans to restructure its evaluation process for complaints of abuse or neglect involving school employees, according to department officials. The state Department of Children and Families will form two units starting in mid-January that will solely focus on complaints against school employees, according to Ken Mysogland, the department’s bureau chief of external affairs. Both units will be staffed by five social workers who will report back to supervisors at the department’s headquarters. Each school case will also be reviewed by agency lawyers. Existing personnel will be reassigned to these new units, Mysogland said. No new employees will be hired. Social workers currently have mixed caseloads that include both educational and familial investigations.


Tamika Montgomery-Reeves in November 2015
Tamika Montgomery-Reeves in November 2015

Dover: The newest member of the state’s Supreme Court is also the first black justice in its history. Delaware State News reports Tamika Montgomery-Reeves is also believed to be the youngest member of the Supreme Court since it was officially established in 1951. Montgomery-Reeves is a native of Mississippi who attended law school in Georgia and now lives in Wilmington. She clerked for William B. Chandler III, head of Delaware’s highly influential Court of Chancery, which handles many of the nation’s business-related cases. She started her career in New York and worked on cases stemming from the financial crisis of the late 2000s. Then she came to Wilmington law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. A formal investiture for Montgomery-Reeves is scheduled for Friday.

District of Columbia

Washington: The principal of a D.C. elementary school says a lesson about the Civil War and Reconstruction era went wrong when some fifth graders asked their black classmates to portray slaves. Lafayette Elementary School principal Carrie Broquard detailed the mistake in a letter to parents that explained the learning exercise won’t be offered in the future, The Washington Post reports. Part of the lesson involved students creating a dramatic reading or podcast. “Unfortunately, several students of color were asked by their peers to portray inappropriate and harmful roles,” Broquard wrote. The roles, which were requested by students after they broke into groups, included that of an enslaved person and a person of color drinking from a segregated water fountain, according to letters from the school. Broquard said the students reported being uncomfortable with such casting.


Tallahassee: On the sixth day of Christmas, Baby Jesus vanished from his manger in a popular nativity scene at a park – right under the noses of Mary, Joseph and bowing kings. The disappearance of the replica startled 8-year-old Nate Takacs, who had rushed to get a glimpse of angels and the infant Savior only to find an empty crib at the display at Dorothy B. Oven Park in Tallahassee. Each year the park hosts a well-trafficked and colorful Christmas display. “When I saw the barn and the angels and the kings bowing down, I ran to see what Baby Jesus looks like,” Nate recalled Tuesday. “Why would they take Baby Jesus? It’s a big sin.” He rushed back to his parents, who alerted city officials via Twitter. By Tuesday, a different infant was taken out of storage and placed into the manger.


Atlanta: Although there was no Peach Drop in downtown Atlanta for the first time in decades of New Year’s celebrations, fans can still see the famous peach on display. Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts voiced his disappointment about the canceled Peach Drop but came up with an alternative plan: displaying the peach in the atrium of the Fulton County Government Center, news outlets report. “This is an iconic symbol,” Pitts said. “We’re inviting the public to come down to see it, touch it, feel it, take pictures in front of it.” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in November that the city would ring in 2020 without the Peach Drop, breaking a 30-year tradition. Pitts told news outlets there will definitely be a Peach Drop next year. The peach will be on display through the end of January.


Wiliwili is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands.
Wiliwili is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands.

Wailuku: Officials want to deploy a wasp throughout the state to combat another type of wasp that threatens a species of native trees. A biological control plan issued by the state Department of Agriculture and Department of Land & Natural Resources calls for the use of wasps named Aprostocetus nitens, The Maui News reports. Their release would supplement another species that is already protecting wiliwili trees statewide. The black and metallic green Aprostocetus nitens are related to the Eurytoma wasp that defend the trees from a third wasp species. Swollen, tumor-like growths called galls left by Erythrina gall wasps damage and kill thousands of wiliwili, along with other types of trees, officials say. The Eurytoma wasp, called “a gall wasp gladiator” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was first released in Hawaii in 2008 to destroy the galls. The release of Aprostocetus nitens is needed to provide another layer of defense, state biologists say. Wiliwili in bloom are distinctly Hawaiian, with coral red and salmon-colored flowers. Red wiliwili seeds are valued among Native Hawaiians for making leis and other uses, the state report says.


Twin Falls: The state became the latest to signal its willingness to continue accepting refugees for resettlement despite a presidential order giving state and local governments the ability to refuse them. Twin Falls County commissioners unanimously approved accepting refugees after hearing testimony from community members, business owners and church leaders in support of the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center, The Times-News reports. Republican Gov. Brad Little joined 30 other governors nationwide who have agreed to accept refugees, officials said. “I support the decision of the county government on this matter,” Little wrote in a statement Monday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The state and county actions were in response to the executive order signed by President Donald Trump in September requiring states and localities to express their willingness to allow refugee resettlement programs to operate.


Springfield: A drive-through car-washing business that opened when Eisenhower was in the White House and tail fins were on stylish coupes has closed its doors after 64 years. Henry Grebler opened Drive-In Car Wash just south of downtown Springfield in 1955, appropriating a now-vintage neon sign from the former In & Out Car Wash that had operated a few blocks away. Grebler modeled the assembly line-like wash business after one he saw in Madison, Wisconsin, The (Springfield) State Journal-Register reports. After heart surgery, he surrendered the business to his son, Peter, in 1972. Peter Grebler, now 81, watched on New Year’s Eve as his last customers pulled away from the business in their sparkling, freshly washed autos. “Forty-seven years is a lifetime,” he said. “I could talk about the economy of the industry and competition, but for me, it’s time. I don’t want to get carried out of here on a gurney with my boots on.”


Terre Haute: Indiana State University’s Dreiser Hall is set to undergo an $18.4 million renovation that will replace much of the 70-year-old building’s aging infrastructure. The State Budget Committee recently approved the release of the funds for the renovation after state lawmakers approved the funding during their last session. The project will improve the building’s HVAC and plumbing systems, fire suppression system, and electrical needs and also bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Dreiser Hall’s classrooms will also be upgraded to include state-of-the-art technology to allow individuals statewide to earn a degree at a distance, the Tribune-Star reports. Work on the project should begin around June 1 and take about 16 months to complete, said Diann McKee, ISU’s senior vice president of finance and administration.


Donna Jeffrey, a lifelong resident of Eldon, Iowa, helped create an educational center at the American Gothic visitor center, which draws about 15,000 to 20,000 people annually.
Donna Jeffrey, a lifelong resident of Eldon, Iowa, helped create an educational center at the American Gothic visitor center, which draws about 15,000 to 20,000 people annually.

Eldon: This tiny southeast Iowa town has been losing population, jobs and business for nearly five decades, but one woman is trying to turn things around with a focus on tourism centered around the community’s famous landmark – the house that served as the backdrop for Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting. Donna Jeffrey, 70, is leading a nonprofit that seeks to reinvigorate the town by giving visitors a reason to spend more time and money there after seeing the structure. Eldon formed in 1870 around a railroad depot. The economy grew when it became a stop for the Rock Island Company’s route between Chicago and Los Angeles and a crew change station. But it was after Iowa-born Wood based the background of “American Gothic” on a white-framed house there that the town received international attention. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Scandia: Authorities say a young bull moose has been spotted twice in north-central Kansas. The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism said Friday that the moose was captured on a trail camera along the Republic River near the Republic County town of Scandia. The moose was also spotted earlier this month about 20 miles northwest of the town. State wildlife research biologist Matt Peek said then that the spotting was “very rare.” Prior to this month, the last time it happened was when a bull moose wandered into the state in 1989 on its way to Oklahoma.


A rendering imagines the Camp Restoration community for veterans in Louisville, Ky.
A rendering imagines the Camp Restoration community for veterans in Louisville, Ky.

Louisville: The city may get a village of about 25 tiny homes meant to house homeless veterans as they undergo a 12-month support program. The founder and president of Veteran’s Club Kentucky started discussing the plan several months ago and expects the $3.5 million project to break ground this spring. Plans include a community center, offices and a spiritual wellness center. A neighborhood meeting will be held before construction begins, Jeremy Harrell said. The project has been supported by the community, city officials and the Louisville VA Medical Center, he said. The architecture firm Luckett & Farley has even agreed to design the project for free, and the land for the project was donated by developer Chris Thienema, a former Louisville mayoral candidate, Harrell said. Donations are still needed to fund the project.


New Orleans: The family of legendary chef Leah Chase, who died last year, is holding a memorial event at the restaurant she once led featuring many of the dishes she made famous. The event will be held Monday, on what would have been her 97th birthday, according to a release from the family. Chase was a civil rights icon and groundbreaking chef who created the city’s first white-tablecloth restaurant for black patrons, broke the city’s segregation laws by seating both white and black customers, and introduced countless tourists to Louisiana Creole cooking. She died June 1, 2019. The event will be held at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, where she was a constant figure for decades. The event is a fundraiser for the foundation she and her late husband founded in 2013. It will also feature a special art exhibit. Chase was an avid patron of African American artists, and many works she collected are featured in her restaurant.


Augusta: The state’s minimum wage has gone up from $11 to $12 per hour, giving a wage boost to thousands of workers. It marks the fourth annual increase in Maine under a ballot measure approved in 2016 when the state’s minimum was $7.50 an hour. State lawmakers subsequently changed the law to allow restaurants to continue paying tipped workers a lower hourly wage. About 8% of Maine’s 679,000 workers earned at or below minimum wage in 2018, according to available state labor data. Federal labor rules on overtime eligibility also became effective with the new year, lifting the minimum salary for exemption from $23,660 to $35,568 per year for a full-time employee. Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said her department estimates 1,600 workers will be newly eligible for overtime pay protection.


Cumberland: A western Maryland zoo where five endangered animals died was ordered by a judge to send its remaining big cats to a sanctuary. Tri-State Zoological Park in Cumberland has seen two tigers, a lion and a lemur die within a three-year span. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued the zoo in 2017 after conducting undercover inspections. U.S. District Judge Paula Xinis sided with PETA on Thursday and said the zoo engaged in “flagrant and persistent violations” of the Endangered Species Act, news outlets report. She ordered the zoo to give up two surviving lions and a tiger. Following a six-day trial in federal court, Xinis wrote that testimony made clear that every animal at the zoo suffered under living conditions there.


Boston: A famous seafood restaurant with an odd moniker has announced that it is closing after more than a century in business. The No Name on South Boston’s Fish Pier announced on its Facebook page Monday that it is closing. “We want to thank our generations of customers for all the years of loyal patronage, and for helping make the No Name a landmark location,” management wrote. The restaurant was founded in 1917 by Nick Contos to feed fishermen at the end of the work day, according to the restaurant’s website. He didn’t give his establishment a name, saying, “If it works, leave it alone.” It was run by the Contos family until the end. According to federal court documents, the restaurant was facing financial difficulties, and on Monday it filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.


Grand Rapids: Three businesses that sell recreational marijuana have won the right to begin making home deliveries of pot. The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs says it’s approved home pot deliveries by Lit Provisionary in Evart, Battle Creek Provisioning in Battle Creek and Nature’s Releaf Burton in Burton. Those three businesses are the first approved for adult-use home delivery in Michigan, which on Dec. 1 began allowing sales of recreational marijuana to adults age 21 and over, WOOD-TV reports. The delivery process is similar to medical marijuana delivery. Customers will sign up online and place an order, but they must provide an ID to verify that they are at least 21 years old. Most payments will be made online, but delivery services are allowed to accept cash.


Minneapolis: New estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show the state’s population growth slowed down slightly in 2019, leaving some concerned Minnesota could lose a congressional seat after the 2020 census. Minnesota’s population grew by about 0.6% last year, or about 33,000 people. That was down slightly from 0.7% the prior year. State demographer Susan Brower tells the Star Tribune she’s less confident Minnesota will keep the seat, but it’s still within reach. Election Data Services, a Virginia consulting firm that studies reapportionment, projects the state will fall about 21,000 to 25,000 people short of keeping the seat. But consultant Kimball Brower says the number of people Minnesota needs to keep its seat is not insurmountable. The state of about 5.6 million outperformed its neighbors. Its annual growth has been about four times the growth in the Midwest region overall in recent years.


Meridian: Some military veterans and their caregivers are getting more access to a Navy base. A policy change at Naval Air Station Meridian that’s new for 2020 means approved veterans can apply for authorization to shop at base commissaries and Navy Exchange stores, The Meridian Star reports. They’ll also be able to take part in morale, welfare and recreation programs, including recreational activities such as golf and bowling. Base officials say eligible veterans include Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war or veterans with a service-related disability. A key change with the new policy will be more access for disabled veterans, base officials say. “This opens things up for a lot more people to access these services,” base spokeswoman Penny Randall said.


St. Louis: The city has sold just four properties under a program launched last year that allows people to buy homes for just $1. St. Louis developed the Dollar House Pilot Program in hopes of selling tax delinquent properties that the city’s Land Reutilization Authority has received and of revitalizing struggling neighborhoods. Under the program, a buyer must have the financial means to renovate the property. The requirements can be hard to meet, considering the condition of the buildings, said Otis Williams, director of the the St. Louis Development Corp., which oversees the Land Reutilization Authority. “Citizens often get a reality check when they go see the houses in person,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “They realize that this is a lot of work for this $1.” Buyers have four months to stabilize the outside to city code and 18 months to obtain occupancy permit. They must then own and occupy the home for at least three years.


Helena: Nearly 30 years after losing its second seat in the U.S. House, the state could regain it following the 2020 U.S. census, officials with the Brookings Institution forecast. Montana’s resident population has grown from 989,400 in 2010 to an estimated 1.069 million in July 2019, according to figures released Monday by the U.S. Census Bureau. Montana lost its second U.S. House seat after the 1990 U.S. census and has had just one member in the 435-member body since January 1993. The 2020 census will count residents as of April 1. The Census Bureau will deliver apportionment counts to the president and Congress in December 2020. States will have the information to start redrawing districts, if necessary, by March 31, 2021, the Census Bureau says.


Lincoln: The state’s roads saw a deadly rise in fatal crashes in 2019, and leaders say the failure to buckle up was a major factor. The Lincoln Journal Star reports that as of Dec. 27, 249 people had died on Nebraska roads, a 9% increase over the average for the years 2014 through 2018. Nebraska Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jeni Campana says it’s tough to pinpoint the main reason, but the failure to use a seat belt is often a factor. In 2014-18, 69.3% of those killed in passenger vehicle crashes were not wearing a seat belt, according to the department’s data. That’s 25% higher than the national average over the same time period. “It’s absolutely concerning,” AAA spokeswoman Rose White says. She says part of the problem is that Nebraska is among just 16 states that don’t enforce seat belt use as a primary offense.


Las Vegas: A Nevada Army Guard soldier serving in Afghanistan has received a uniform religious exception to sport a beard based upon his Norse pagan beliefs. The Nevada Army Guard says Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Hopper is the first guard soldier to receive a religious accommodation approval for a beard. Norse paganism is a polytheistic religion that is based on ancient beliefs and practices associated with the geographic area of Scandinavia. Hopper, 34, says he has been practicing his Norse pagan faith for about two decades, and his beliefs complement the Army Warrior ethos. He cited documents on the Norse beard that underscore the fact beards are seen as a sacred and defining feature of masculine men. “In short, it is honoring the pillars of heathenism, our ancestors and ancient gods and way of life,” Hopper says.

New Hampshire

Concord: State authorities are urging hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts to start the year off with a fresh Hike Safe card. Valid for the calendar year, Hike Safe cards exempt holders from certain liability for repaying search-and-rescue costs. They cost $25 for individuals and $35 for families, and the money goes to the Fish and Game Department’s search-and-rescue fund for training and equipment. The department’s conservation officers carried out nearly 200 search-and-rescue missions last year. The cards are available at Fish and Game headquarters in Concord or online.

New Jersey

A fire burns at Marcal Paper on Jan. 30, 2019.
A fire burns at Marcal Paper on Jan. 30, 2019.

Elmwood Park: An iconic paper plant that was destroyed in a massive fire last year will soon reopen, according to a top company official. Rob Baron, president and chief executive officer of Marcal Paper, says the plant will be “back in business” this month, though he did not provide a specific opening date. The decision to resume operations was made after Marcal assessed the site and merged with Pennsylvania-based Nittany Paper, a deal Baron said would facilitate Marcal’s conversion of paper into products ready for sale. The company lost 21 paper-converting lines during the Jan. 30 fire, making the merger the “only viable pathway” to restarting operations, Baron said. Officials have said they can’t determine what caused the fire, which did not cause any injuries but put hundreds of people out of work. The fire also destroyed 30 of 36 buildings and Marcal’s iconic red sign.

New Mexico

Albuquerque: The U.S. Interior Department has decided not to extend a deadline involving a proposal to divert the Gila River to aid rural communities, a move that cuts off access to more than $50 million in construction funds. U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and environmentalists praised the recent decision, saying the river that flows through southwestern New Mexico and into Arizona will be protected. “We cannot sacrifice the Gila – and the benefits it provides to our tourism and outdoor recreation economy – to this project,” Udall said. “I urge all parties involved to move forward to invest in more cost-effective, high-priority community and agricultural water and restoration projects in southwestern New Mexico.” The fight over the Gila has raged for years. Under a 2004 settlement, an entity overseeing the project had faced a deadline last month to have an environmental review completed.

New York

New York: 2020 began in frigid fanfare for hundreds of people who splashed through the Atlantic Ocean during the annual Coney Island Polar Bear Club Plunge. Swimmers wearing Santa hats and other costumes braved 40-degree temperatures to partake in the New York City tradition. The weather was chillier than last year, when the mercury rose unseasonably high into the upper 50s. The event dates to 1903 and raises money for various charities.

North Carolina

Raleigh: The new year will bring new training requirements for reporting and preventing child sexual abuse and sex trafficking in the state’s schools. The News & Observer reports the training requirements are part of an overhaul of state sexual assault laws. The changes include making it a Class 1 misdemeanor for adults to fail to call authorities if they suspect a child is being abused. The statute of limitations will also be extended for civil suits against abusers. North Carolina is thought to have one of the highest rates of human trafficking in the nation. But there have been only nine human trafficking convictions across the state since 2013. Five involved children. The new law requires all public schools to train employees who work with students to spot warning signs of abuse.

North Dakota

Bismarck: The state’s population has reached a record level, according to new estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. About 762,000 people live in North Dakota, an increase of approximately 4,000 compared to 2018. “We are excited to see that a record number of people are experiencing North Dakota’s exceptional quality of life. Our population growth reflects the abundant opportunities in North Dakota and the strong potential for future economic expansion,” Gov. Doug Burgum said in a statement. Burgum authorized a task force last year to prioritize counting everyone in North Dakota, from the Bakken oilfield to its American Indian reservations to the state’s universities. North Dakota remains the fourth-least-populated state, ranking behind Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming.


Columbus: A bill would allow judicial candidates in the state to determine whether to list their party affiliation on general election ballots. The bipartisan Ohio House bill that was introduced Friday would go into effect in 2021, Cleveland.com reports. The bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Stephen Hambley and Democratic Rep. Michael Skindell would not affect next year’s state Supreme Court races. If the bill passes, residents would see party affiliations for lower-level judicial races, such as municipal court judge. “Very clearly we have partisan involvement in all elections,” Hambley said. “Judicial candidates can advertise on their literature; they can identify with the party. But they’re just not allowed on the ballot.” The practice of leaving party affiliation off the general ballot is more than 160 years old, and before that the Ohio General Assembly appointed judges.


Vinita: The community held a candlelight vigil this week to remember the lives of two girls who went missing more than two decades ago. Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman were 16 years old when they disappeared. About 200 people attended a vigil Monday night and remembered the girls with a slideshow, songs, prayers, speeches and a balloon release, the Tulsa World reports. Lauria was spending the night at Ashley’s family home in Craig County after celebrating Ashley’s birthday. Investigators believe that in the early hours of Dec. 30, 1999, Ashley’s parents, Danny and Kathy Freeman, were killed, and their home was set on fire. Ashley and Lauria have never been found. Ronnie Busick, a suspect in the slayings of the parents and the kidnapping and presumed deaths of the teens, is in the county jail. Busick is slated to come back to court in February.


Portland: The city is working to clean up and contain an oil sheen on the Columbia Slough caused by illegal dumping. The Portland Bureau of Environmental Services says containers with a mixture of oil and gas discovered around midnight Sunday were dumped on the roadway above the slough near Alderwood Road. City contractors placed booms in the water to contain and absorb the fluid. Environmental Services advises people recreating on the slough to avoid the immediate area around the NE Glass Plant Road bridge. Each container holds a maximum of 275 gallons, but only a fraction of that amount is believed to have reached the slough. Portland Fire & Rescue and Portland Bureau of Transportation managed the initial response and cleaned up the residue on the roadway. Anyone with information about this incident is asked to call Environmental Services’ spill response hotline at 503-823-7180.


Pittsburgh: Homicides in the city hit a 20-year low in 2019, with 37 killings, according to data from police and the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office. That’s down from the 52 homicides reported in 2018 and ties the number of homicides in 1998, The Tribune-Review reports. All but four of last year’s victims were men, and all but three were shot to death. Five victims were children. Homicides in Pittsburgh have been decreasing since a spike in 2014, when the city saw 70 homicides., the paper said. Surrounding Allegheny County had 59 homicides last year.

Rhode Island

Providence: Police say a new red flag law has likely helped to prevent tragedies. Since the red flag law took effect in June 2018, police across the state have invoked it 33 times as of Oct. 31, according to a newspaper’s analysis. “Although the impact of the law is difficult to measure since it is preventative in nature, I believe that the removal of firearms and prevention of future purchases of firearms from individuals in Cranston, where extreme risk protection orders were granted by the court, likely averted potential tragedies,” Cranston Police Chief Michael Winquist told the Providence Journal. The red flag law allows law enforcement officials to file for an order to take guns away from people deemed to be imminent threats to themselves or others.

South Carolina

Clemson: Three fraternities at Clemson University were placed on disciplinary probation for violating the university’s code of conduct, according to a university report. Delta Chi, Phi Delta Theta and Chi Phi were investigated following accusations of harsh new member processes. The university’s report lists misconduct investigations involving alcohol, drugs, sexual assault, physical assaults and hazing. Chi Phi is on probation until May 31, 2020. The report says fraternity members forced new members to consume alcohol after joining the chapter Sept. 13. Phi Delta Theta is also on probation until May 31, 2020, for not being “forthcoming” during an investigation into a Sept. 20 incident, the report says. Delta Chi is on probation until Dec. 31, 2021, for forcing new members into “personal servitude” during an Oct. 16 incident, which is a form of hazing, the report says.

South Dakota

Sioux Falls: Gov. Kristi Noem says the storms, tornadoes and flooding that devastated communities across the state provided one of the biggest challenges she faced in her first year in office, in a wide-ranging interview in which she also promised to focus on growing the economy and improving her working relationship with lawmakers in the new year. The first-term Republican governor called it “a difficult year, all in all, for the state” due to flooding that strained state resources and had her administration working overtime and traveling thousands of miles to respond to disasters. Noem said she had successes, naming her work to encourage foster families, address drug addiction and spread broadband internet access in rural areas. And she also called herself “teachable,” a nod to some lawmakers who said she failed to communicate well on some policy decisions.


Famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns tours Sun Studios as part of a bus tour to promote his new eight-part series, "Country Music."
Famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns tours Sun Studios as part of a bus tour to promote his new eight-part series, "Country Music."

Nashville: A new passport will let tourists check off their visits to 22 of the state’s most iconic country music destinations. The state Department of Tourist Development will be including the Country Music Passport in an insert in the 2020 Tennessee Vacation Guide to be released Jan. 8. The passports are also now available at Tennessee’s 16 welcome centers. The initiative focuses on country music locations featured in Ken Burns’ latest PBS documentary on the music genre. Limited prizes will be offered for participants who make it to five, 15 or 22 of the sites, including a custom Hatch Show Print and the “Ken Burns Country Music: An Illustrated History” book with the first 100 signed by Ken Burns and author Dayton Duncan. A branded Tennessee Music Pathways guitar is available for visiting all 22 sites. Stops include the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Hurricane Mills and Memphis’ Sun Studios.


Goliad: Benny Martinez, a Mexican American civil rights leader who helped organize the historic Latino meeting with President John F. Kennedy, died Sunday. His daughter Loretta Martinez Williams said Martinez died peacefully of natural causes in Olmito, Texas, following a long bout with several illnesses. He was 85. Born in Goliad, Martinez went to segregated schools before his father moved the family to Houston so his sons “wouldn’t have to pick cotton for a living.” After serving 18 months as a medic in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Martinez returned to Houston and organized boycotts against businesses that refused to hire Mexican Americans. He later joined the League of United Latin American Citizens, then the nation’s largest civil rights organization for Latinos, and raised money for Mexican Americans to pay their Texas “poll taxes” so they could vote.


A high school takes on a production of "High School Musical" in "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series."
A high school takes on a production of "High School Musical" in "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series."

Salt Lake City: The state issued several hundred film permits in 2019, which officials say made for a busy year. Nearly two dozen productions received film incentives, including for feature films, television series and documentaries, the Utah Film Commission said. The state currently offers up to a 25% tax credit or cash rebate on money spent by productions in the state, with the program capped at about $8 million each year. Among the productions filmed in Utah last year are Disney’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” which will film a second season in the state this year. Two films shot in Utah will premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, “The Killing of Two Lovers” and “Nine Days.” The Utah Film Commission says it issued 780 film permits this year. Productions across the state created more than 1,500 local jobs. The commission estimated spending in the state at $59 million in 2019.


St. Johnsbury: Work is set to begin in earnest this year with the renovation of a downtown housing project. The Depot Square apartment building will be reborn as the New Avenue Apartments. The $8 million renovation plans call for 40 apartments, and the first floor of the building will become commercial space. The Burlington-based nonprofit Housing Vermont bought the building more than a year ago from an out-of-state developer, using nearly $1 million in state funds contributed by the town. The Caledonian Record reports the final occupants of the current building are in the process of moving out. “We plan to start asbestos abatement work in mid-January,” Housing Vermont Vice President Kathy Beyer said. A huge trash container at the back side of the building has been filling up with dozens of old appliances and other large items.


Suffolk: Online retail giant Amazon has bought 87 acres of land in southeastern Virginia. But the company isn’t revealing why. The Virginian-Pilot reports the company bought the land last month in Suffolk. The city is near the Port of Virginia and already home to many warehouses that store coffee from other countries. Amazon spokeswoman Rachael Lighty confirmed the land purchase to the Pilot but would not provide details on its plans for the property. She said Amazon has a policy of “not commenting on our future road map.” She said that “the purchase in Suffolk provides us with the flexibility to quickly respond to our future network needs.” The newspaper reported in July that Amazon could be planning to build a $200 million multistory fulfillment center.


West Richland: Some people spent part of their New Year’s Eve trapped on a state highway after tumbleweeds blocked their route, authorities say. YakTriNews reports the Washington State Patrol announced via Twitter about 6:30 p.m. that State Route 240 was closed in both directions near West Richland. Trooper Sarah Clasen told KAPP-KVEW that vehicles were trapped in a pile of tumbleweeds that stood up to 15 feet tall. The state Department of Transportation used snow plows to clear the scene. Trooper Chris Thorson said it took about 10 hours to clear the road, which opened again about 4:30 a.m. Wednesday. Thorson says five cars and one 18-wheeler were trapped in the tumbleweeds. No injuries were reported. “People were still stuck at midnight and rung in the new year trapped under the weeds,” Thorson said.

West Virginia

Morgantown: West Virginia University’s chief of obesity medicine is investigating how best to help the state’s primary care providers treat their obese patients. “Weight loss used to be designated to commercial programs, like stores selling diet products,” Dr. Laura Davisson told The Herald-Dispatch. “Now, providers are realizing the health care field needs to get involved.” To that end, Davisson is developing a survey to assess the needs of those providers. She estimates the assessment will be ready for distribution by spring and hopes to have results analyzed by the fall. After that, she’ll be working to develop an educational outreach program for the state. Ideas include sharing information at annual Continuing Medical Education meetings, offering immersion courses in Morgantown, and providing help online through e-consultations or webinars.


Madison: Some of the state’s fire departments have stopped using firefighting foam that contains a group of man-made chemicals that have been linked to increased cholesterol and cancer risk, among other health hazards. The per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances contaminate Wisconsin’s groundwater and waterways and are also found in products like nonstick pans, Wisconsin Public Radio reports. In mid-December, the Madison Fire Department switched to fluorine-free foam. “I don’t feel safe with our firefighters being exposed to those products,” Madison Fire Chief Steven Davis said. Davis also has environmental concerns. After the American Transmission Co. substation fire in Madison in July, large amounts of chemicals were found in stormwater runoff, he said.


Cheyenne: State wildlife officials have opened hunting applications for six different big game species and wild turkey. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is opening applications Thursday for elk, deer, antelope, spring turkey, moose, sheep and mountain goat, the Rocket-Miner reports. The first deadline is Jan. 31 for resident and nonresident spring turkey hunters and nonresident elk hunters, department officials say. All applications must be submitted online. Nonresident elk hunters now have until May 8 to modify or withdraw their applications but must still submit by the end of January, officials say. Tentative season information for elk, deer and antelope would not be listed in the application packet but is expected to be available for moose, sheep and mountain goats, department officials say.

From USA TODAY Network and wire reports

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tumbleweed trap, Norse pagan beard: News from around our 50 states