New Orleans has always had its own trends, newsmakers and obsessions. This year, it seemed our civic life was bookended by scandals, beginning with the New Orleans Saints bounty revelation and investigation and ending with U.S. Attorney Jim Letten stepping down. But plenty of other people made the headlines in 2012 — some saints, some sinners, some stars, some average Joes. And if there was a lesson to be learned, it was to be careful what you post on online comment boards — as no fewer than four people in our countdown learned.
While the rest of America was singing "Call Me Maybe," transfixed by Honey Boo Boo and doing it Gangnam Style, this is what captivated New Orleanians' attention in 2012.
Harry "Mike" Ainsworth
It was a horrible start to 2012: On Jan. 25, Ainsworth, an Algiers resident, was walking his children, 9 and 10, to the school bus when he came upon a carjacking. He attempted to assist the driver and was shot. Ainsworth's children stayed with their father until police arrived, but he was dead at 44. The brazenness and brutality of the crime made New Orleanians wonder how violent the New Year would be. The answer: plenty. As of press time, New Orleans had 182 murders — the equivalent of nearly nine Newtowns.
The Parole Violator
New Orleans-born rapper Mystikal's busy career was derailed in 2004 when he served six years in prison on state and federal charges ranging from sexual battery to failing to file taxes. In February, a domestic dustup left him in violation of his parole and sent him back to jail. He was released from East Baton Rouge Prison in August. He ended the year with a new single, the James Brown-inspired "Hit Me."
In one of the year's four cases of online comments getting someone in trouble, Traina — a psychologist who worked with schoolchildren in Jefferson Parish public schools — drew fire from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and civil rights groups after comments on NOLA.com and Twitter. Traina said young black male criminals need to be "put down like the Dogs they are!" and said he was a "Wallace Man at Heart," referring to segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace. The SPLC filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. Traina resigned in late May.
Elton Mark McCabe
The Foreign Prisoner
The Slidell businessman was on a business trip in South Sudan in October when he was arrested, jailed and charged with kidnapping. Sen. David Vitter publicized the case and agitated for McCabe's release. After a month in various jails, McCabe was released on bail and a Sudanese judge finally dropped the charges. He returned home Dec. 10 — and was arrested three days later on charges of accepting kickbacks and wire fraud.
The Bar Owner
After experiencing "Hollywood South" while filming 21 Jump Street, the movie hunk decided to open his own New Orleans bar — in the heart of the Bourbon Street tourist drink-and-barf district. (The bar advertised it had "The Sexiest Boss Alive!".) The bordello-themed Saints and Sinners seemed aimed squarely at tourists, with $15 po-boys and a $40, four-pound hamburger. Finish it in 30 minutes and it's free.
Bad: Having a joint fall out of your pocket. Worse: Having it happen in court. Worser: Having it happen when you're an assistant city attorney. Worsest: Having your wife running for City Council at the time. After some confusion over whether Cantrell would resign from the city (he eventually did), his wife LaToya Cantrell weathered the storm and went on to a runoff and an eventual win in the City Council District B race.
- Photo by John Knappe
Glen David Andrews
Earlier this year, the trombone player was charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault by D.A. Leon Cannizzaro's office after a violent altercation with a girlfriend. Andrews, who has struggled with addiction, spent three months during the summer in a rehab program and returned to performing in the fall, singing the praises of a sober life. His cases are still pending.
Jason Giroir The Commenter
After the February shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida, NOPD officer Jason Giroir posted a message — "Act like a Thug Die like one!" — on WWL-TV's website. Both NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas and Mayor Mitch Landrieu made clear their disapproval, and Giroir subsequently resigned from the force. The incident raised questions about conduct on news comment boards — and it wouldn't be the only time that practice got someone into trouble this year.
The Art Man
The director of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) since 1996, Weigel had been a lightning rod for controversy in recent years when two visual arts curators resigned in less than 18 months and artists removed their works from the galleries in protest. In May, Gambit was about to go to press with a cover story about the CAC's woes when Weigel announced his resignation during a trip to China, saying he would be returning to his first vocation, composing.
The pastor of the Vieux Carre Assembly of God church and Bourbon Street preacher filed suit against the city of New Orleans after the city council passed legislation prohibiting the dissemination of "any social, political or religious message between the hours of sunset and sunrise" on the city's sin strip. The American Civil Liberties Union has taken up his cause.
The Bounce Queen
Freedia had her biggest year ever, starting with her national TV debut in January on Jimmy Kimmel Live, followed by a tour that included New York, Chicago and a well-received set at South by Southwest (Rolling Stone said "towering transvestite New Orleans bounce-rapper Big Freedia ... channeled Little Richard"). The year ended with Freedia bouncing her booty all the way down to Australia.
The Other Publisher
When The Times-Picayune announced it would be cutting print editions back to three days a week, the folksy publisher of The Advocate made a quick move into New Orleans, opening a local bureau, hiring many laid-off T-P employees and delivering the paper seven days a week. Delivery got off to a spotty, frustrating start, but at year's end, the paper had smashed even its most optimistic circulation goals. This month, the paper launched "Beaucoup," a weekly entertainment tabloid that directly took on the T-P's longtime "Lagniappe" section, and introduced a community news page.
The Former Senate President
The Chalmette native spent 32 years in the Louisiana Legislature, making his name synonymous with St. Bernard Parish and Capitol politics. Although he never represented any part of New Orleans, he was a champion of the city against fiscal and political raids by rural lawmakers. When he was defeated for re-election in 1995, Nunez was in his second go-round as president of the state Senate. Nunez died in January at 81. He was eulogized by former Gov. Edwin Edwards at a Mass in St. Louis Cathedral.
When the Gert Town mother murdered her two preschoolers in October, it shocked even a crime-weary city. But Thornton — who was charged with two counts of first-degree murder — quickly became a human indictment of Louisiana's public mental health system when it came out she suffered from bipolar disorder and possibly schizophrenia. At a hearing this month, a Tulane University forensic psychiatrist said she was incompetent to stand trial.
- Courtesy WVUE-TV
The bad blood between WWL-TV and WVUE-TV got worse in September when Jim Henderson, one of the country's best sportscasters and a man who had been synonymous with WWL during 34 years as sports director there before his retirement, signed a contract to be a football analyst at WVUE. Conspiracy theorists made much of the fact that, even in television retirement, Henderson wanted to keep his job as the radio "voice of the Saints" — and WVUE is owned by Saints owner Tom Benson. Hmm.
One of Louisiana's most legendary and respected chefs went into business with Chicago chef Rick Tramonto to open Restaurant R'evolution in the Royal Sonesta Hotel – a throwback to opulent (and pricey) dining at a time when pop-up restaurants and cheap eats are in vogue. Since opening in June, it's proved a popular and critical success.
Uncle Lionel Batiste, drummer for the Treme Brass Band and an indelible symbol of New Orleans' brass band and musical culture, died in July at the age of 81. He had been a fixture on the New Orleans music scene since the 1940s, and was still playing music until nearly the time of his death.
The New Orleans native and star of The Wire and Treme had a busy year, filming several movies (including this year's installment of the Twilight series). On the home front, he continued with plans to redevelop the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood and open several grocery stores in New Orleans neighborhoods that badly need them.
The New Orleans rapper has been on the scene for years, but put out his first major-label album, The Stoned Immaculate, for Warner Bros. in June (it debuted in the Top 10). His success earned him a Gambit cover interview, and he held a hometown record release party at House of Blues on Independence Day and debuted a weekly show at the club.
The Chief Justice
When Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Kitty Kimball announced her January 2013 retirement, a court scuffle developed over seniority, which determines who would take Kimball's place. Did time as an appointed judge count, or was it based solely on elected tenure on the bench? In October, the state Supreme Court ruled that Johnson – who had been on the bench longest – would become the new chief justice, the first African-American to hold the position.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu created a $115,000 job as city "crime commissioner" for attorney and former city councilman James Carter, but Carter left the position in September, just shy of a year and a half in office. Despite some high-profile anti-crime initiatives, the murder rate hadn't abated during Carter's tenure. Landrieu said Carter's "leadership will be missed," but didn't bother to appoint a new crime commissioner.
- Courtesy Audubon Nature Institute
The White Tiger
When the white tiger brothers Rex and King Zulu arrived at Audubon Zoo in 1999, they became instant superstars in the Asian Domain and a favorite of camera-toting zoo visitors. In May, Rex died at the age of 16 from complications from cancer.
Acting on a search warrant, the NOPD raided a Gentilly home in March, looking for drugs that were supposed to be sold there. Allen, 20, heard the noise and walked out of his bedroom, whereupon Officer Joshua Colclough opened fire and killed the unarmed Allen. In August., Colclough was expected to take a plea deal for negligent homicide, which would have carried a maximum five-year sentence. But he changed his mind, and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro charged him with manslaughter, which could carry a penalty of as much as 40 years in prison. Colclough has entered a not guilty plea and is in the midst of pretrial hearings at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.
In January, a cellphone video of an Alabama football fan rubbing his testicles on the head of a passed-out LSU fan in the Krystal Burger on Bourbon Street after the BCS championship game quickly went viral. It earned Brian Downing the nickname "The Alabama Teabagger" and left local media wondering how to report the story, or how much footage to show. People were disgusted — but was what Downing did a legitimate sexual assault or a drunken, frat-style Jackass-esque prank? DA Leon Cannizzaro made it clear where he stood on the matter, charging Downing with sexual battery — a charge which could carry 10 years in prison and require Downing to register as a sexual offender. Was that too harsh a punishment for the crime? Again, people were split. Just as his October trial was to begin, Downing took a proffered deal, and on Nov. 29, Criminal Court Judge Karen Herman sentenced him to two years in prison, calling him a "bully."
One of New Orleans' most dazzling composers had a banner year, starting with his music for Red Tails, a film drama about the Tuskegee Airmen; moving to Broadway with his evocative score for the first African-American production of A Streetcar Named Desire; and finishing up in St. Louis, where he's working on Champion, an opera about the mid-century boxer Emile Griffith. Champion is scheduled to debut in June 2013.
New Orleans Hornets
The Hoops Dreamers
It's been a disastrous year for the Bees so far, landing them at the bottom of the Western Conference. If one thing epitomized the Hornets' troubles, it was Eric Gordon. After six months with the team, the former Los Angeles Clipper signed a deal sheet with the Phoenix Suns and made it clear he wanted to leave. The Hornets matched the offer in July to keep the recalcitrant player, and shortly thereafter Gordon developed a knee injury that kept him off the court for much of the season. Debate swirled over whether it was a real injury, but whatever the case it certainly hobbled the 2012 prospects for the Hornets. On the positive side: The team's home, the New Orleans Arena, got a spiff-up that included video screens on the outside of the building, and new owner Tom Benson has made it clear he intends to rename and rebrand the Hornets with something more New Orleans. But the name most often mentioned — the Pelicans — had both supporters and fierce detractors.
The New Councilman
Gray, an attorney, was the lesser-known candidate in the City Council District E race against state Rep. Austin Badon. He finished a distant second in the primary. But Gray garnered some heavy-duty endorsements, including those of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Sheriff Marlin Gusman and former District E Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis. Gray also fought off questions of residency (a judge agreed that he was domiciled in District E) to beat Badon in the December runoff.
The legendary drummer of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band — and WWOZ-FM DJ — was an outspoken and irascible influence on generations of younger musicians. Even late in life, he was performing regularly at Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse on Bourbon Street. French died in November at 74 after a long illness.
Back in July, the councilman from District E abruptly pleaded guilty to "conspiracy to convert federal funds and to file a false statement with a government agency," stepping down from the council as he did so. The longtime 9th Ward pol admitted to using FEMA funds to prop up his 2007 campaign for the state Senate. At his November sentencing, he begged for leniency, citing his daughter's young age and his wife's recent death. U.S. District Judge Lance Africk sentenced him to six months and the repayment of more than $80,000 in fines and restitution — and told him that he, not the court, placed his daughter in a precarious position
James Carville & Mary Matalin
The political couple, who moved to town in 2008, continued to promote New Orleans across the country when he wasn't teaching political science at Tulane University and she wasn't serving on local boards. This year, they were busy as co-chairs of Super Bowl XLVII — and they even managed to find time to star in a New Orleans-themed air-conditioning commercial.
The unibrowed basketball phenom became the center for — and the center of — the New Orleans Hornets' rebuilding strategy when he joined the team this year. Davis received a slew of awards in 2012, and was a member of the U.S. men's basketball team that won a gold medal at the London Olympics.
The Bywater-by-way-of-New York director's first full-length feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, earned him rave reviews and won top prizes at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. In late November, Zeitlin was nominated for Best Director at the Independent Spirit Awards, but shut out at the Golden Globes nominations. Will the Oscars come calling for Zeitlin? We'll find out Jan. 10.
Well, hello, Public Official A. As the year wound to a close, all eyes were on the federal courthouse downtown, where an indictment of the former mayor is said to be imminent. About a half-dozen former associates of his former honor have already pleaded guilty to a variety of charges — some of which include paying bribes to "Public Official A" at City Hall to influence the award of public contracts — and all are expected to cooperate with the feds in a case against Nagin. Some say the clock is ticking as the five-year statute of limitations approaches, but if the feds pursue a RICO (racketeering) case against Nagin, the deadline is still years away.
The St. Aug grad and 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist hit rough waters this year. In August, Louisiana State University discharged its star cornerback for what was believed to be drug test failures. Mathieu entered a rehab program in Houston soon after, but returned to the school less than a month later — a move college football watchers thought unwise. In October, Baton Rouge police arrested the Honey Badger for pot possession. One month later, Mathieu announced he was done with college and declared his eligibility for next April's NFL draft.
Karen Carter Peterson
The Party Boss
The New Orleans-born state senator solidified her power in Baton Rouge in April when she beat out Buddy Leach to become the head of the Louisiana Democratic Party — the first woman to hold that position. Peterson inherited a party that couldn't even mount a challenge to Gov. Bobby Jindal in the last election. Predictably, she cleaned house — but it's too soon to know if Peterson's Democratic party can rally on a statewide level. Back in the Legislature, in June, she was the sole "no" vote in the state Senate on a symbolic resolution asking the NFL to reconsider the New Orleans Saints' bounty punishment.
A July five-alarm fire at the Hubig's Pies bakery in the Marigny destroyed the facility, sending New Orleanians running to stores to buy the last of the company's famous fried pies (some even putting the final treats on eBay for ridiculous sums). The fire was a huge story among tradition-loving New Orleanians, but it was also significant enough to make The New York Times and CNN. The Bowman and Ramsey families, who own the bakery, swore they'd reopen as soon as possible, and urged the public to buy Hubig's merchandise to speed the process.
Hubig's Pie costumes bearing the image of mascot Savory Simon were a popular sight at Halloween, and restaurateur Chris DeBarr invented his own take on a Hubig's at his restaurant Serendipity. Hubig's even had a booth at the Po-Boy Festival in November. But the public accepted no substitutes, and 2012 ended with the city still Hubig-less. Maybe in 2013 ...
The Community Organizer
An activist who was seen as instrumental in bringing Broadmoor back after Hurricane Katrina overcame late ethics payments and her husband's pot nab to become the District B councilwoman in December. Cantrell, who was backed by Council President Stacy Head, defeated Juvenile Justice Project director Dana Kaplan, who had drawn support from Mayor Mitch Landrieu and was seen as the establishment candidate in the race.
In his June State of the Criminal Justice System address, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro implored Mayor Mitch Landrieu to increase the funding for his overwhelmed office (the D.A. has made the case, quite plausibly, that his is the most underfunded in the state). But when the budget was released in October, his office was cut nearly 5 percent. Nevertheless, Cannizzaro proclaimed himself OK with the budget slice. The end of the year saw Cannizzaro — along with local, state and federal agencies — announce a major crackdown on gang violence in Orleans Parish.
The Trash Man
The co-owner of the River Birch landfill spent the year fighting off lawsuits and a federal investigation of his business by U.S. Attorney Jim Letten's office. But he drew blood himself, suing top Letten assistants Sal Perricone and Jan Mann over pseudonymous comments they'd made on NOLA.com. The resulting scandal rocked Letten's office and eventually triggered his retirement, which might have happened anyway after President Obama's re-election in November. In an only-in-Louisiana twist, Heebe once was one of the top choices to head the U.S. Attorney's office — back in 2001, when Letten was tapped instead to lead it after Heebe's former wife and girlfriend accused him of domestic violence.
"No White Flags" was the ongoing cry of the former New Orleans Saints player, who was diagnosed with ALS last year. Whether it was his Gleason Gras event raising money for ALS charities, his travels through the Northwest, or his determination to take place in the Jazz Half Marathon, Gleason continued to inspire and put a human face on the disease.
In July, the U.S. Justice Department and the city finally came to terms on the long-awaited New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) consent decree, an oversight mechanism designed to overhaul the long-tarnished department (to the tune of $11 million a year). Officers' associations and citizens' groups called for fairness hearings based on some of the decree's recommendations. Meanwhile, in non-news, the high murder rate in New Orleans remained steady this year, even as homicides declined nationally.
The Oil Giant
The company responsible for the 2010 disaster that claimed 11 lives and harmed or crippled wildlife, communities and the environment was prepared for a big summer makeover. It spent millions as one of the sponsors of the 2012 London Olympics, much of it on a PR campaign, "Fueling the Future." It flew Gulf Coast chefs and bands to London to show the company's commitment to "working towards a cleaner planet." (Its billboards and ads were vandalized, and trashed by critics in the press.) A minor but significant blow came from the feds in late November: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prohibited the oil giant from doing any new business in the U.S., at least temporarily. The EPA banned BP from new oil contracts for its "lack of integrity" following the disaster — meanwhile, the company reached a $4.5 billion settlement with the U.S. Justice Department for criminal charges. The faces of the crimes: rig supervisors Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, who pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges, and David Rainey, former BP vice president of exploration for the Gulf, who was charged with concealing information from Congress about the size of the disaster. They'll head to court in February.
The Council President
In April, Mayor Mitch Landrieu endorsed Head's opponent, Cynthia Willard-Lewis, for the at-large City Council seat, putting the long-simmering Landrieu/Head feud out in the open. Four months later, as Hurricane Isaac approached, Landrieu shut her out of an emergency planning meeting at City Hall; Head left town for vacation in the hurricane's aftermath, but suffered little political damage for the decision. In December, the election of Head-backed candidate LaToya Cantrell to the City Council further solidified Head's power within City Hall.
What do you get for a man that owns an NFL team and a TV station? A basketball team, of course; Benson purchased the New Orleans Hornets from the NBA for a reported $338 million. In November, Benson and wife Gayle donated $10 million to Brother Martin High School. Benson had made it clear he wanted to change the name of the Hornets to something more New Orleanian, and in December the proposed new name was leaked to the media: the Pelicans.
During the 2011 municipal budget talks, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman requested an increase in per diem funding for Orleans Parish Prison — paid from city coffers per prisoner per day. In 2012, he wanted to end the per diem system, which District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry once called a "perverse incentive" to keep the jail's inmate count high. Formerly reluctant to cede authority to federal control, Gusman has recently agreed to a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. But he has claimed he needs tens of millions of dollars from the city to fund it. The city countered that Gusman has provided little proof that the additional money is necessary. In 2013, the city will find out who's right, or at least who U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk believes is right.
In May, former U.S. Rep. William Jennings Jefferson finally reported to a low-security federal prison in Beaumont, Texas, to begin serving a 13-year sentence on charges of bribery and public corruption. It was a spectacular fall for a man who escaped a background of poverty in East Carroll Parish to attend Harvard Law School and become the state's first black congressional representative in more than 100 years. Jefferson's imprisonment also signaled the final collapse of the Jefferson political dynasty. When his sentence ends, the man known as "Dollar Bill" will be 78 years old.
New Orleans reacted angrily and forcefully when word leaked in May that The Times-Picayune would be cutting back to three-day-a-week print publication in the fall. The rollout was a public relations debacle for executives at the paper and its parent company, Advance Publications, who preferred to concentrate on a promised digital future rather than the nearly 200 people being laid off. (Dozens of new employees were hired for the new "NOLA Media Group," and even some of those whe were fired were quietly un-fired weeks and months later.) Despite protests and letter-writing campaigns, the T-P's fate was sealed and New Orleans became the largest American city without a daily newspaper. That dubious status seems likely to change in 2013, as Advance's Cleveland newspaper, The Plain Dealer, is undergoing cutbacks. Its publisher assured readers, "We do not have a specific plan, timeline or structure for Cleveland," but no one doubts the Advance template will be applied there as well.
It was a mixed midterm year for the energetic mayor. He backed a couple of City Council candidates who lost (Cynthia Willard-Lewis and Dana Kaplan) and threw his support behind proposed legislation to create a taxing "hospitality zone" that got kayoed by residents in the tourism district. On other fronts, he got good notices for his response to Hurricane Isaac and his handling of an unprecedented string of major tourism events that kept the city hopping in 2012, all the while embarking on a series of major cleanup and public works projects leading up to the 2013 Super Bowl.
The Fallen Fed
When Letten stepped down in December, he had served nearly 11 years as head of the U.S. Attorney's office in New Orleans. He oversaw a string of successful political prosecutions that made him one of the city's most popular public servants. Though Letten gave no reason for the resignation, it came shortly after two of his top lieutenants — Sal Perricone and Jan Mann — were exposed for popping off anonymously in the comments section of NOLA.com. They left as well, as did Mann's husband, Jim Mann. As Dana Boente took over as interim prosecutor, there was buzz that more heads may roll in the office ... and that U.S. Attorneys may soon be turning their attention to some familiar names among the New Orleans media in regard to the Danziger case and others.
New Orleans Saints
For the Black and Gold, it was a year worthy of a sports soap opera — or at least a telenovela. The bounty revelation. The investigation. The suspensions. The commissioner. The
franchise tag. Coach Sean Payton's contract voided by the NFL. Then, of course, the season itself. Four straight losses to start. Then a rally. Then another collapse — worst of all, against rivals the San Francisco 49ers and the Atlanta Falcons. And, of course: what happened to Drew Brees? We lost our infallible Breesus for a while, only to get him back when the season was all but over. It all ended on a soap opera-worthy cliffhanger: Will Sean Payton be back to coach the Dynasty next year — or will he go to Dallas? Tune in next year, sports fans.