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By David Levinsky and Danielle Camilli Staff writers

January 1, 2013

Burlington County cheered the Olympic victories of two local athletes, and cried when a little girl’s life was lost in a tragic school bus crash.

The county watched Gov. Chris Christie command the national spotlight, and the majority elected two Democrats to county office for the first time in four years.

Zoning boards in two local towns turned away proposed medical marijuana dispensaries, but a county jury acquitted a well-known pot activist of drug charges.

Burlington County’s Buttonwood Hospital was sold at auction, and all 40 county towns were impacted by a so-called superstorm named Sandy.

2012 will be remembered for these and other stories during a year marked by controversy and change, heartache and devastation, Olympic glory and political intrigue.

The following are the top 10 stories of the year in the county, as ranked by the staff of the Burlington County Times:

1. Superstorm Sandy

It was a meteorological nightmare — a tropical cyclone spanning a thousand miles in diameter, combining with a massive high-pressure system, and making landfall smack along the Jersey coast. The end result was arguably the worst natural disaster in state history.

And while Burlington County largely escaped the carnage experienced at the shore and parts of North Jersey, the superstorm’s path from the ocean to the Delaware River here was nonetheless littered with downed trees, power outages and damaged homes.

Two county residents were badly hurt after being struck by falling trees the night of the storm, and a Willingboro couple died in a house fire that occurred during a power outage related to the storm. Bass River in southern Burlington County was decimated, but every corner of the county was affected in some fashion as more than 75,000 homes and businesses lost power and dozens of families were sheltered, along with hundreds more from hard-hit Ocean and Atlantic counties.

The total bill for damages and storm-related expenses in the county is still being tallied, but is expected to be substantial as over 1,500 residents have registered to obtain federal aid.

2. Chesterfield bus crash

Motor vehicle accidents happen almost every day in Burlington County. Most are minor fender benders; some are serious. This one shook an entire community.

The tragic Feb. 16 crash involved a school bus transporting students to the Chesterfield Elementary School and a dump truck hauling construction debris. It claimed the life of 11-year-old Isabelle Tezsla and resulted in life-threatening injuries to her two sisters, Sophie and Natalie, and a schoolmate, Jonathan Zdybel, 11. The girls were triplets. Fourteen other children suffered minor injuries.

The accident drew the attention of the National Transportation Safety Board, which became the lead agency in a still-ongoing probe into the collision. The agency’s initial findings resulted in the bus driver, who had obtained his school bus endorsement to his commercial driver’s license about a month before the accident, being charged with failing to stop or yield at the intersection. The truck driver and the truck’s owner were also cited with violations stemming from the condition of the vehicle, which, according to the NTSB, was overweight and equipped with inadequate brakes.

Neither driver has been charged with any criminal wrongdoing, but the case remains open pending the conclusion of the board's investigation sometime this year.

3. Buttonwood Hospital sold

The decision to sell the county’s Buttonwood Hospital in Pemberton Township proved to be controversial.

While the Republican-controlled Board of Freeholders said the $15 million sale of the 170-bed nursing home and 30-bed psychiatric hospital saved the facility from closing outright, residents, employees and political opponents cried foul, arguing the decision cut the safety net for some of the county’s most vulnerable residents.

The sale was finalized in August. The new owner, Ocean Healthcare, now operates the facility, which was renamed Aspen Hills.

The freeholders said it was costing taxpayers about $4 million a year to run, with projections showing that contribution continuing to grow, and Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements and other funding not keeping up with costs. They claimed the sale would ensure its continued operation and services to residents and patients.

There were 272 county employees working at Buttonwood at the time of the sale. Ocean Healthcare of Lakewood hired 141 of those workers. Another 23 retired, and 93 filed for unemployment benefits. Most of those who filed were offered jobs by the new owners, but were eligible to apply for benefits because the offers included salaries that were 20 percent or less than their previous jobs.

4. Election 2012

President Barack Obama’s re-election may have been the biggest story on election night, but the most surprising victory belonged to a pair of Democrats down the ballot who managed to unseat two incumbent Republicans from the Burlington County Board of Freeholders.

Democrats Aimee Belgard and Joanne Schwartz were outspent by Republicans Bruce Garganio and Mary Ann O’Brien by a more than 6-1 margin, but the underdogs still wound up victorious, receiving 100,403 and 97,111 votes, respectively, compared with Garganio’s and O’Brien’s tallies of 91,854 and 91,305.

Similar to four years ago, when Democrats won freeholder seats for the first time in more than two decades, Belgard and Schwartz received a big boost from the top of the ticket as Obama defeated former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 38,976 votes in the county.

Despite the loss of two freeholder seats, county Republicans cheered the return of Republican Jon Runyan to a second term in Congress. The former Philadelphia Eagles lineman’s race against Democratic challenger Shelley Adler, the widow of the late Congressman John Adler, helped maintain the GOP’s majority in the U.S. House.

5. Chris Christie

The governor cemented his standing as a national political figure in 2012, and his frequent trips across the country to stump for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney fueled speculation that he might join the ticket as his running mate.

Romney selected Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan instead, but Christie was named the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention.

The speech drew mixed reviews, but New Jersey’s outspoken governor was thrust back into the national spotlight last fall when Superstorm Sandy tore through the Garden State. His leadership during the crisis drove up his New Jersey approval ratings, but his praise of President Barack Obama was panned by some national Republicans, who accused him of aiding Obama to help his own 2016 ambitions, a charge Christie denied.

During his year of national fame and acclaim, one of Christie’s most controversial moments came in March during a town hall meeting in Florence, where he called Mount Laurel resident William Brown an “idiot” after the former Navy SEAL and Democratic political candidate argued with him about a proposed higher-education overhaul.

Days later, Christie told reporters he had no regrets about the exchange, but in recent interviews the governor has expressed misgivings about the incident.

6. Local Olympians

Burlington County was represented on the medals stand during the Summer Games in London as Delran native Carli Lloyd won gold in women’s soccer and Pemberton Township native Matt Emmons won bronze in shooting.

Both athletes have brought home medals at previous Olympics, but this year’s triumphs were special for both because of the challenges they overcame.

Lloyd, who now resides in Mount Laurel, began the Olympics on the bench but rejoined the starting lineup when a teammate was injured. She came up big in the gold-medal game against Japan, scoring both U.S. goals to give her team its third consecutive gold.

Emmons won a gold medal in the 50-meter shooting event in Athens in 2004 and a silver in the event at Beijing in 2008, but he lost out on medals in the three-position shooting event at both those Games because of misfires on his final shots.

His final shot in London was far from great, but it was on target and just good enough to earn him a medal in the pressure-packed competition.

7. Medical marijuana

Patients with debilitating illnesses were able to legally purchase marijuana to help ease their symptoms for the first time in New Jersey this month, when the state’s first nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary opened in Montclair, Essex County.

The opening of the Greenleaf Compassion Center followed nearly three years of delays in the implementation of New Jersey’s medical marijuana law. But challenges remain, notably the difficulty other nonprofit groups have faced in finding suitable locations to grow and sell the drug.

Two groups sought permission to open dispensaries in Burlington County, but their applications in Maple Shade and Westampton were rejected by the local zoning boards after an outcry from residents, who feared the centers would bring crime and drive down their property values.

8. Rutgers-Rowan merger

The most heated political debate this year wasn’t whether the Democrat-dominated Legislature would approve Christie’s much-ballyhooed income tax cut, but instead centered on whether state lawmakers would sign off on his administration’s plans to merge Rutgers University’s Camden campus with Glassboro-based Rowan University.

Christie and his allies argued that merging the two institutions would create a research university that would help ensure that South Jersey obtains an equal share of higher-education funds and spark an economic renaissance in the city and across the region.

Rutgers-Camden students and staff blasted the idea, saying the loss of the prestigious Rutgers name and identity would cause a mass exodus of students and professors.

A compromise was eventually brokered and signed into law. It didn't merge the schools, but created a joint board to promote new partnerships between the schools, particularly in health and science.

9. NJWeedman trial

Ed “NJWeedman” Forchion saw the drug-distribution charges against him go up in smoke in October after a second jury trial in 2012.

The longtime marijuana activist and Rastafarian was convicted of possession when his case first went to trial in the spring, but that jury was deadlocked when deciding the more serious distribution charge.

If convicted, Forchion, who claims dual residency in Pemberton Township and Los Angeles, could have faced up to 10 years in prison. The charges stemmed from when state police found a pound of pot in his trunk during a traffic stop on April 1, 2010, in Mount Holly. The state contended that the sheer volume in Forchion's possession and the $2,000 in cash he had in his pocket at the time of his arrest were tell-tale signs of distribution, despite the absence of other packaging paraphernalia.

Forchion maintained that he is no drug dealer and that he brought the marijuana from California, where he is a licensed medical marijuana patient, for his own use while on a trip to New Jersey to visit his family.

Forchion's defense garnered attention statewide and beyond, and his acquittal of the distribution charge was cheered by fellow marijuana activists. Forchion is scheduled to be sentenced in January for possession and could get up to 18 months in prison, but he likely will get a probationary term.

10. Melia and Lewis convicted

Former Moorestown cop Robert Melia and his ex-girlfriend, Heather Lewis, were convicted of sexually assaulting two teenage girls over eight years.

Melia was a patrolman on the force during the years the crimes occurred in his Moorestown home. After a three-week trial, including the playing of a graphic video of one of the assaults, the former couple were convicted and taken into custody.

Melia, 42, was sentenced to 30 years in state prison. Lewis, 36, of Pemberton Township, was sentenced to 25 years for the assaults and for a separate assault on a teenage boy in the township.

The case garnered international attention when Melia and Lewis were arrested in 2008; he was also charged with animal cruelty. Authorities said they found tapes of him performing lewd acts with calves on a Southampton farm. The charge was eventually dismissed because prosecutors chose not to show the alleged tapes to the grand jury.