This rundown of the year’s top local stories was compiled by the editorial team here at Saipan Tribune to give our readers a capsule view of which stories and personalities dominated the year’s front pages, which issues captivated the public’s attention, and how the whole drama played out in the news cycle.
1. ‘Single-largest development deal in CNMI history’
You may be for or against it, but the $7.1-billion integrated casino development agreement that the CNMI government forged with Best Sunshine International Ltd. in August is undoubtedly the single-largest development deal in CNMI history. The multi-billion dollar casino agreement paves the way for the construction of 4,000 hotel guest rooms, 17,000 square meters of total gaming floor area, a $100-million themed entertainment facility, 600-seat theater, 10,000-square-meter retail area, and over 20 F&B outlets. But more than the dimensions of the planned resort, in the short term the much-debated casino deal allowed the government to finally pay the retirees’ deferred 25-percent pension since last year, and the payment of interest on defined benefit plan members’ withdrawn contributions. The deal also gave relief to long-suffering power consumers of the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. in the form of $10 million worth of utility vouchers.
The construction of 4,000-room hotel will also equate to job growth, as Best Sunshine said that they would need as much as 9,000 workers with most of them to be recruited from the local pool of workers.
2. Inos-Torres victory
Republican standard-bearer Gov. Eloy S. Inos and Ralph DLG Torres topped the gubernatorial general elections and subsequently emerged victorious over independent Heinz Hofschneider-Ray N. Yumul during the runoff race.
The Commonwealth Election Commission board certified the election results of the Nov. 21 gubernatorial runoff, declaring Inos-Torres the winner over Hofschneider-Yumul with a big 1,744 margin.
During the Nov. 4 four-way gubernatorial elections, Inos-Torres received a total of 6,342 votes, while the Hofschneider-Yumul team came second with a total of 4,501.
The Inos-Torres team got 46.6 percent of the total votes cast, just about 4 percentage points less than the required 50 percent-plus-one rule that would have resulted in their tandem being declared the outright winner, preventing a runoff election.
The Inos-Torres’ 1,841 margin over Hofschneider-Yumul paved the way for the second runoff race in the CNMI last Nov. 21.
At the runoff race, Inos-Torres still came strong by garnering a total of 6,877 votes, while Hofschneider-Yumul obtained 5,133, according to CEC official results.
The inauguration of Inos and Torres as governor and lieutenant governor respectively will be on Jan. 15.
The then-lieutenant governor Inos became governor when Benigno R. Fitial resigned as governor in Feb. 2013.
3. A bloody year
The year 2014 saw two double homicides and a young police officer fatally shooting his former girlfriend with his service firearm and then himself.
The early part of the year was greeted with a double homicide case when the bodies of a Chinese couple, Guo Huang Xu and Qing Xiu Zheng, were found completely charred in their bedroom in As Gonno on Feb. 23.
An autopsy determined that the couple, both farmers, died due to asphyxiation from soot and carbon monoxide inhalation as a result of the fire. Arson investigators classified the case as a double homicide as the fire was intentional.
The family put up a $5,000 cash reward to anyone who can provide information leading to the arrest of the person or persons behind the killing. As of yesterday, no one has been arrested yet. Family members believe that robbery was the motive, but they refused to elaborate.
On Nov. 2, another double homicide involving two Chinese male farmers stunned the community and triggered Chinese business persons and farmers to join forces by holding peaceful protests for justice.
Hai Ren Li, 51, and Cheng You Li, 47, were reported missing on Nov. 21. Their bodies were dumped at the old airport runway in Koblerville two days later. Investigators again classified the case as double homicide as visible signs of foul play were found. Part of a large group of concerned members of the Chinese community that conducted a search found the farmers’ bodies.
The searchers also spotted Hai Ren Li’s Toyota Tacoma that was abandoned under some tangan-tangan trees a few meters on the side of Magisa Drive in As Gonno. Magisa Drive is located about 50 meters away where the victims’ bodies were dumped.
The murder caused over 150 Chinese farmers and owners of various businesses to come out in a long vehicular convoy to express their anger and frustration over the killing and other unsolved homicides involving Chinese nationals on Saipan.
Some protestors urged police and the FBI to look into the possible involvement of six “local extortionists” in the two double homicides.
Friends of the victims put up a $10,000 cash reward for any information leading to an arrest. As of yesterday, no one was arrested yet.
With less than a week before the Christmas celebration or two weeks before the year ends, the community was stunned when a shooting incident happened in Garapan in the morning of Dec. 19.
Police Officer 1 Christopher S. Santos reportedly fatally shot his former girlfriend, Joana Vitug, before shooting himself inside the latter’s office at Mailman and Kara law offices.
Santos and Vitug have a child. Vitug has three other children.
4. The historic Buckingham trial
The historic bench trial of former attorney general Edward T. Buckingham was held in February before Superior Court Associate Judge Kenneth L. Govendo. Buckingham was the first AG in CNMI history to stand trial on criminal charges.
Govendo found Buckingham guilty of all public corruption charges except one and sentenced him to 3.5 years in prison, all suspended.
In imposing a no-prison term sentence, Govendo said he believes that jail is not appropriate considering that, among other things, the 65-year-old Buckingham is not a typical criminal that stole or embezzled a huge amount of money or committed sexual abuse or violent crimes.
Govendo ordered Buckingham to pay a $14,000 fine and placed him on unsupervised probation for 3.5 years.
The Office of the Public Auditor originally filed 12 criminal charges against the former AG in connection with violation of election laws and illegal award of a sole-source contract, among others.
Govendo dismissed four charges, including those pertaining to the contract issue.
5. Fitial returns to face charges
Former governor Benigno R. Fitial returned to the CNMI from the Philippines last April 26 to face the criminal charges related to shielding former attorney general Edward T. Buckingham from being served with penal summons. He resigned as governor in February 2013. He and his wife then left the CNMI.
Upon Fitial’s counsel Stephen Nutting’s request last March 17, Judge Wiseman quashed the arrest warrant he issued against Fitial and ordered the former governor to voluntarily appear in court on April 30.
On April 30, Fitial, 68, came with a cane aided by his wife, Josie, before Superior Court Associate Judge David A. Wiseman for his initial appearance.
A day later, the Office of the Public Auditor filed a complaint charging Fitial with 10 various criminal charges. OPA later amended the information to include three more charges.
The charges are related to the unauthorized release of a federal inmate, award of a sole-source American Recovery and Reinvestment Act contract, shielding of Buckingham from being served with penal summons, and the execution of a power purchase agreement contract related to the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. Fitial pleaded not guilty.
Last November, Superior Court Associate Judge David A. Wiseman dismissed the criminal charges against Fitial.
Wiseman ruled that OPA lacks authority to initiate criminal action against Fitial, now a private citizen, and that the Attorney General retains prosecutorial authority over such an action when the defendant is not currently in office.
Wiseman dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning the case can be re-filed in the future.
OPA moved the court to reconsider Wiseman’s ruling. The judge has yet to issue a decision.
6. The trial and conviction of Crisostomo
The jury trial of habitual offender Joseph A. Crisostomo over the kidnapping, rape, killing, and robbing bartender Emerita R. Romero began on April 7. On April 24, the six jurors reached a guilty verdict against the 40-year-old Crisostomo on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, sexual assault in the first-degree, and robbery.
Superior Court Associate Judge Joseph N. Camacho, who presided over the trial and decided the misdemeanor charges, found Crisostomo guilty of assault and battery, and disturbing the peace.
Camacho sentenced Crisostomo to life imprisonment. The defendant is appealing his conviction to the CNMI Supreme Court. His appeal is still pending.
Romero, 37 and a mother of two, was last seen boarding a car near her house in Garapan in the early morning of Feb. 5, 2012. Two days later, FBI agents found her body in a small room at an abandoned La Fiesta Mall in San Roque/As Matuis. Autopsy showed she was beaten and strangled to death with a pair of leggings.
The prosecution called a total of 31 witnesses during the trial. Defense attorney Janet King called only a detective as their witness.
King, however, filed 44 pretrial individual motions. Two Guam lawyers assisted King in the case. The Guam lawyers, however, did not attend the trial.
At the trial, the prosecution played twice the dramatic recording of the 911 call that Romero made in the early morning hours of Feb. 5, 2012.
7. The disappearance of Japanese sisters
Japanese sisters Chinatsu and Natsuki Yamada mysteriously disappeared in Marpi on June 30. They were reported missing after their rental car was recovered at Wing Beach.
On that same day, Chinatsu, 26, and Natsuki, 33, were supposed to fly back to Japan.
A search and rescue team recovered on July 2 the inflatable raft that was believed used by the sisters at Wing Beach. The sisters remained unfound.
Police said based on surveillance footage at Mariana Resort where the sisters stayed, the two left their hotel room on June 29 at 10:17pm.
The following day, at 12:08pm, the car rented by the sisters was recovered at Wing Beach. That afternoon, police found at the beach the clothing and towels believed to belong to the sisters. Inside the towels were the keys to the car, U.S. dollar bills, and articles of clothing. Also found at the beach were rowing paddles and the pump to inflate a raft, police said.
The parents of the missing sisters have visited Saipan for the sixth time since after the incident. The parents are appealing to anyone in the community who has information about what happened to their daughters to come forward.
8. Former Rota senator Ayuyu sentencing
It was last March when U.S. District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona slapped a 41-month prison term on former Rota senator Juan M. Ayuyu. Manglona told Ayuyu that although he did not gain financially for his actions, he had brought a significant shame to the Office of the Senate of the Commonwealth.
Ayuyu pleaded guilty to the offense of conspiring to violate the Endangered Species Act and to the offense of conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding.
The former senator has three criminal cases—the fruit bat case, obstruction of justice case, and cell phone possession case. He pleaded guilty to two charges.
In sentencing Ayuyu, Manglona said one month prior to defendant’s first conduct (fruit bat case) that happened on Oct. 17, 2010, three Rota residents were indicted in the same court for poaching on a breeding colony of threatened Mariana fruit bats.
The three are Ayuyu’s own constituents, said Manglona, referring to Albert Taitano, Adrian Mendiola, and David Santos.
The judge said apparently, Ayuyu, whether he was a senator or not at the time, was not deterred with the indictment of the three.
Ayuyu admitted in the plea deal that he asked Ryan Manglona to lie because he wanted to influence, obstruct, and impede the grand jury from returning an indictment against him for the seizure of the federally protected fruit bats.
On July 22, 2013, Ayuyu pleaded guilty to two charges relating to the smuggling of endangered fruit bats from Rota to Saipan. On Sept. 30, 2013, Ayuyu (Ind-Rota) resigned as a member of the 18th Senate.
9. CHC gets more breathing room.
Early this month the Commonwealth Health Center was provided an extension of its Medicare provider agreement by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services up to April 2015. Despite the extension, deficiencies were found but CMS also noted the improvements that CHC has done to addressing the deficiencies found. CHCC had already submitted its corrective action plan and is now awaiting approval.
10. Swift passage of 2015 budget
With already one partial shutdown because of the CNMI government not enacting a budget law before the constitutionally mandated Oct. 1 deadline, this year’s quick passage of a $134.33-million spending law for fiscal year 2015 was more the exception than the rule. The Sept. 17 signing of the appropriations bill by Gov. Eloy S. Inos came a couple of weeks before the deadline. It included the salaries of 2,778 public officials and employees and funding for public services such as education, health, safety and pension obligations. But the governor raised some concerns on salary and education funding provisions that need further actions. The budget law also sets aside $338,751 to pay back members of the government employees’ credit union who do not have outstanding loans. In signing the appropriations bill, Inos urged everyone to continue pursuing new revenue-generating measures to avoid a catastrophic fiscal situation and maintain sustainability.
11. Military designs on Pagan rankles CNMI
The U.S. Department of Defense’s plan to expand military activities on Pagan is being opposed by the CNMI. The local legislature, for one, said the wholesale militarization planned for Pagan would permanently foil any meaningful chance for resettlement and result in collateral damage. The U.S. Air Force’s designs in using the Francisco C. Ada International Airport as an alternative airfield has also rankled the community, foremost of which is the Saipan Chamber of Commerce which said this would negatively affect the islands’ burgeoning tourism industry. It argues that Tinian is a better divert airbase since two-thirds of the island is already being leased by the military.
12. Saipan mayor passes away while in office.
This year the CNMI experienced grief over the loss of Mayor Donald Glenn Flores on June 2, 2014. As people would remember and describe Flores, he was a loving and caring person to be around with. After his passing, now-Mayor Marian DLG Tudela took the helm of the office, becoming the first ever female mayor in CNMI history.
13. $10 million gift from Best Sunshine.
CNMI residents experienced a gracious Christmas gift from Best Sunshine early this year that started out as a promise of $10 million going to the Commonwealth Utilities Corp., which allowed CUC to distribute utility vouchers to every CNMI residential account in the amount of $635.71 early in October. This allowed residents to either avail of the voucher or simply leave it alone.
14. Paul Russ runs aground
The 526-foot long, 16,000-ton cargo ship Paul Russ ran aground on the reef across Micro Beach on the morning of Sept. 9. With worsening weather, and to avoid a breach of its hull, the cargo ship was successfully pulled out two nights later on the evening of Sept. 11. The Port of Saipan was forced to close when unexploded ordnance was discovered near the ship on the second day of its grounding on Sept. 10. A total of 400,000 gallons of fuel oil remained on board during the ship’s grounding. Local and federal agencies as well the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard and the vessel’s representatives pooled together their efforts in surveying and removing the grounded ship. No lives were lost, or injuries reported during the episode. A month later, coral remediation efforts were reported to be still underway, and to this day the cause of the grounding has not been provided.
15. NMC continues ‘full speed ahead’
Its show-cause status lifted, full accreditation reaffirmed, the college moves up to senior commission, and launches a new four-degree, the Northern Marianas College broke through an era of sanctions and shaky accreditation status…and then some more this year. In February, the Accrediting Commission on Community Junior Colleges lifted a show-cause order imposed in 2013, and granted the college the commission’s highest level of reaffirmation. A jubilant crowd packed the college’s D-1 building during the announcement of the achievement, and featured such dignitaries like Gov. Eloy Inos. The college continued “Full Speed Ahead” in July when they gained six-year accreditation under the WASC Senior College and University Commission, moving “up one level” and allowing the college to expand its offering of four-year degree programs. This fall semester, a bachelor’s degree in business management was launched, joining the college’s degree in education as the only four-year degrees offered in the CNMI.
16. Cape Air Blues
Cape Air/United drew the ire of traveling public this year with swaths of cancelled flights during the months of March, July, and August, largely due to “technical issues.” A petition circled in June gained a couple hundred signatures calling for federal and local agencies to investigate Cape Air’s quality, reliability, and safety of its services, as well as the pricing of their tickets. Cape Air’s vice president Andrew Bonney led an “apology tour” of sorts, clarifying the problems Cape Air faces with only two airplanes—one operational and the other a spare—running high-use schedules between Guam and the CNMI, at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in October. Right now, Cape Air is the sole carrier flying between the CNMI and Guam, but Star Marianas Air, an inter-island airlines based on Tinian, is currently pushing to gain access to the Guam airport, though this has been slow going.
17. Honest Profit breaks ground, ACG eyes next year
Hong Kong-based Honest Profit International Ltd. broke ground on its $130-million Saipan Resort Hotel last September. The 300-room hotel is being built in 40,00 square meters of public land in San Antonio.
Meanwhile, Macau-based Alter City Group is planning to start Phase 1 of its $360-million, 500-room golf resort in Puntan Diablo, Tinian as early as next year if permitting agencies expedite their applications.
Later phases will include an 18-hole golf course over 75 hectares of land. However, the company said the golf course can’t go ahead until a dumpsite is relocated from the proposed land.
18. Controversial PPA declared invalid
The past year saw the Superior Court rule as invalid the $190-million power purchase agreement entered into by the CNMI government with controversial Saipan Development LLC. The court found that then-governor Benigno C. Fitial had no authority to suspend the procurement regulations of the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. and the deal with the company was non-binding from the beginning.
The alleged secret signing of the no-bid, 25-year $190-million deal was one of the issues that led to the filing of impeachment charges against Fitial, who subsequently resigned as governor.