The Merced Sun-Star covered a lot of news in 2011. Some of it was heartbreaking, such as the numerous deaths that occurred in Yosemite National Park during the spring and summer months. Some of it had a harsh local impact, such as the steep budget cuts endured by Merced County school districts and other local agencies. And some of the stories we broke gained national attention. The following list shows some of the top stories of the year, as determined by input from the Sun-Star's newsroom staff, votes from readers, and page views on MercedSunStar.com.
Starbucks employee vents in song
A Starbucks employee fired for his musical rant made national headlines and became the Merced Sun-Star's top-read story of 2011. Back in September, Christopher Cristwell, 25, posted a video of himself to YouTube, singing about his job at the Chowchilla Starbucks. The video quickly gained popularity, going viral after it was posted to a prominent Starbucks blog. That's when it caught the attention of management, who said they couldn't allow Cristwell to continue working at the Chowchilla shop after making "disparaging" remarks about customers. The video has had nearly 1 million views in the three months since it first went online, and a version of the song is now available for sale on iTunes.
And Cristwell? It appears he's working again.
A Dec. 6 comment on his Facebook profile says he's now working at the Shell gas station in Chowchilla -- across the street from the coffee shop he loved to hate.
Livingston teacher accused
The news seemed to keep getting worse for Livingston High School teacher Japhia Huhndorf, who back in May was accused by police of helping several of her students inhale chloroform, a chemical that can be used as an anesthetic. Not long after she was arrested, police evacuated the high school campus after getting reports of explosive materials being kept in a classroom.
They eventually found a vial containing 4 milliliters of nitroglycerin in Huhn- dorf's chemistry lab. She was accused of storing explosive and dangerous chemicals in her classroom.
Her ordeal came to an end in December, when she was sentenced to four years of probation and was forced to surrender her teaching license.
UC Merced student's death shakes campus
The suicide of Adam Wood sent shock waves through the close-knit UC Merced community. The 19-year-old sophomore was found hanging from a 75-foot utility tower.
Friends and acquaintances remembered Wood as witty, intelligent and charismatic, but said he had been dealing with personal demons.
The campus, which hit an attendance mark of 5,000 students for the first time in 2011, memorialized Wood with several public gatherings.
County's budget woes
Merced sent out 36 layoff notices to city employees in June, including a number of police officers and firefighters, as a result of the $278 million 2011-12 budget. Likewise, Merced County's managers were scrambling to shrink their budgets by 20 percent prior to June's budget vote. As a result, several longtime cultural institutions were being threatened with cuts or closure, including the Merced County Courthouse Museum and Merced County Library. Ultimately, Merced County's 2011-12 budget passed with 79 layoffs included. However, the library and museum survived the cuts.
Yosemite National Park had already reported an unusually high number of deaths by the time three young people were swept over Vernal Fall in July. Hormiz David, 22, of Modesto, Ninos Yacoub, 27, of Turlock and Ramina Badal, 21, of Manteca were hiking Yosemite's famed Mist Trail when they walked out into the stream above the waterfall. They lost balance, fell into the water and were quickly swept over the 300-foot waterfall. The tragedy made the most headlines, but there were nearly 20 deaths in Yosemite in 2011, including Merced doctor Greg Meyer and physician assistant Richard Fox, both 53, who were swept to their deaths while trying to cross a bridge at Wapama Falls. Meyer had been trying to save Fox, who'd lost his footing. Also killed in Yosemite was Hayley LaFlamme, a 25-year-old hiker from San Ramon, who in July fell 600 feet from the Half Dome summit while trying to climb down the cables.