Some of the top Keizer stories in 2014 included (clockwise from left) a fatal apartment fire on Oct. 24, the conviction of Victor David Smith, and the opening of Kaiser Permanente’s medical facility. (KEIZERTIMES/Craig Murphy)

Some of the top Keizer stories in 2014 included (clockwise from left) a fatal apartment fire on Oct. 24, the conviction of Victor David Smith, and the opening of Kaiser Permanente’s medical facility. (KEIZERTIMES/Craig Murphy)

By CRAIG MURPHY
Of the Keizertimes

There was a change in Keizer’s political landscape in 2014, but so much more.

Before the year even started, big news items from late 2013 already were having an impact. As the year progressed, more issues kept coming up.

Below is a brief summary of the top 10 Keizer stories, as selected by the Keizertimes staff.

Political change

Late in 2013, state Rep. Kim Thatcher of House District 25 announced she would be running for Senate. Fellow Keizer Republican Bill Post simultaneously announced he would be running for Thatcher’s old House seat.

Meanwhile, longtime Keizer mayor Lore Christopher had said she would not be seeking a record-extending eighth two-year term. Christopher made it official in January: after 14 years, it would be time for a new Keizer mayor.

Post handily overcame a controversy about FCC fair time rules to easily beat Barbara Jensen in the primary, but went on a memorable rant after claiming the election cost him his job at KYKN. Post went off about the low voter turnout, posting on Twitter that “worthless lazy Americans get what they deserve.”

Post then defeated Chuck Lee in the fall general election, while Thatcher overcame a controversy regarding a court case with the Oregon Department of Transportation to beat Ryan Howard for the state Senate District 13 race.

There were four open seats on the Keizer City Council, counting the mayor’s seat. Whereas multiple races in 2012 were contested, such was not the case this year. Councilor Cathy Clark went unopposed and will take over as Keizer’s next mayor at the Jan. 5 council meeting. Former city employee Roland Herrera joins the council for the first time, while Brandon Smith returns to the council after a two-year absence. In the only contested race, Amy Ripp defeated Matthew Chappell in a race that got interesting late as news broke of Ripp’s financial issues.

Two high-profile drug cases

Late in the year, two cases with drug connections brought national attention to Keizer.

The first happened in late October, when 4-year-old Andre Joaquin Sosa perished when trapped in his family’s burning apartment. Witnesses reported his mom, 23-year-old Niya Breann Sosa-Martinez, tried coaxing her son out but didn’t physically go in to pull him out of the fire. Witnesses further reported that as her son was dying, Sosa-Martinez went to a nearby gazebo and started calmly texting.

Sosa-Martinez was arrested on various charges. In her initial court appearance, it was revealed Sosa-Martinez had used marijuana the day of the fire.

While the community was still coming to grips with that incident, an investigation by the Keizer Police Department led to the arrest of a couple for use and selling of drugs in their home – with drug paraphernalia within easy access of the couple’s two young children. In addition to Erin and Jarrod Wells, a former beauty pageant winner, Jamie Lynn France, was also arrested. Before-and-after photos showed a startling change in the appearance of France, prompting national interest in the story.

Big Toy moved, delayed

When 2014 started, a location and build date had been selected for the Big Toy play structure project at Keizer Rapids Park.

The year also ends with a set location and build date – but both are different.

For months the plan was to utilize community volunteers to build the 10,000 square foot playground in a five-day span in September. However, it was determined things wouldn’t be ready by then – especially in terms of fundraising – so the project was pushed back to June 2015. Fundraising efforts are ongoing, though the project didn’t qualify for a large state grant that had been viewed as key.

Since the project was delayed, councilors agreed with Christopher’s suggestion to consider other areas within KRP for the play structure. That set off action to expand the Urban Growth Boundary for the park, bringing in 28 new acres of land into city jurisdiction. With the new area added, meetings were held on an updated master plan for the entire park.

By the time the dust had settled, a number of new amenities were added to the plans for the park, including a new location for the Big Toy, an indoor sports facility, two softball fields and the first flush toilets in any Keizer park.

Mom murdered, dad shot by son

In early March, Michelle Pearson was found murdered in her home while husband Bill was clinging to his life. Two people were arrested in the case, including 17-year-old son Brett Angus Pearson.

As the case progressed, Brett Pearson was arraigned on various charges, along with friend Robert Daniel Miller II. Pearson was accused of agreeing to pay Miller “money and things of value to unlawfully and intentionally” cause the death of his mom.

Bill Pearson was released from the hospital a little more than two weeks after the shooting. The younger Pearson and Miller were both tried as adults. Brett Pearson told a TV station he was high on methamphetamine at the time of the shootings.

Victor Smith convicted

It took more than 10 years and two trials, but Victor David Smith was finally convicted in September for the July 2004 murder of Keizer’s Phillip Johnson.

Smith was a prime suspect early in the case, but it wasn’t until key witnesses gave KPD detectives new information in 2009 that the investigation was narrowed to Johnson. Prosecutors argued that Smith was upset with Johnson for staying involved in his girlfriend’s life and felt the only way to solve his problem was by shooting Johnson. Adding heartache, Johnson’s daughter with his then-girlfriend was born a few months after the murder.

The case first went to trial in late June, just before the 10th anniversary of the murder. After three days of deliberation, a hung jury led to a mistrial being declared. A second trial took place in September, with a new witness telling jurors Smith had admitted to the murder while in prison. The jury took four hours to return a guilty verdict, sentencing Smith to 30 years in prison.

Johnson’s family from Oregon and from out of state traveled to both trials, with mom Jean Ausborn addressing Smith.

“Matthew 5:21 says, ‘You shall not murder and whoever commits murder will be in danger of the judgment,’” Ausborn said. “Victor, today is the judgment day.”

Two new medical centers

The year was bookended with the openings of two new medical facilities in Keizer. A Silverton Health clinic opened on Inland Shores Way in February, while a Kaiser Permanente facility opened in Keizer Station in December. A key benefit for both facilities is a number of Keizer families no longer have to leave town to get medical treatment.

Wooing such facilities had long been a goal for Keizer leaders such as Christopher and Christine Dieker with the Keizer Chamber of Commerce.

The Kaiser Permanente facility has the added bonus of high visibility along Interstate 5. While the KP building was opening, several other projects in Keizer Station continued, including a Gustav’s German restaurant, a Taco Bell, a Chipotle Grill, a Carhartt store and a maurices clothing store. A formerly vacant building was reopened as REI in May.

At the same time, the legal battle over the former Rawlins property drew to a close after the parcels of property behind the Lowe’s and Target were foreclosed on.