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Westmoreland County stories of the year in 2021

The covid-19 pandemic continued to make news locally in its second year, from continued illness and deaths to vaccinations and heated discussions and demonstrations about how best to keep children safe at school.

But life in Westmoreland County continued in 2021, and other important and newsworthy events happened — including, of course, on the crime and courts fronts but also with the creation of new businesses and jobs, the power of the vote and the inspiration of a little girl pursuing big dreams on a grand stage.

Here are some of the local stories of note covered by the Tribune-Review from the past year.

Covid continues to impact lives, hospitals

In early December, Westmoreland became the ninth county in Pennsylvania to record 1,000 covid-related deaths.

Dr. William A. Jenkins, medical director of Westmoreland County’s 911 center, soon after warned “covid-19 numbers are higher than ever, resulting in excess hospitalizations, especially among unvaccinated residents in our county.”

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, then warned of the “dire situation” facing Pennsylvania hospitals being overburdened by covid patients.

While being vaccinated and having received a booster, the GOP leader — a former respiratory therapist — remains opposed to any mandate. Still, she laments that a lack of nurses, as well as a spike in covid, flu and other illnesses, has put hospitals in a dangerous situation.

Excela Health recently reported more than 85% of its hospitalized patients are not fully vaccinated against covid-19 and that covid patients account for up to 40% of the people being kept in its three hospitals.

The first covid-related death of a Westmoreland County resident was reported April 8, 2020, according to the state health department. Eight months later, in December 2020, the county experienced its worst month, with 234 deaths reported.

In Westmoreland County, about 187,500 residents — 51.4% — are considered fully vaccinated. Another 25,000 residents have received one dose, state figures show.


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Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review

Nicole Ziccarelli at an election night party at Stratigos Banquet Center in North Huntingdon on Nov. 2, 2021 .

 

County completes GOP flip

Westmoreland is officially a Republican county, according to the outcome of the November election.

While it has been trending that way for several years, GOP victories in the general election solidified the party’s dominance in local politics. Those wins will give Republicans control of every elected office in county government as well as every state and federal office specific to Westmoreland County.

Republicans swept four county office positions on this year’s ballot and ousted two longtime incumbent Democrats — District Attorney John Peck and Coroner Ken Bacha.

“It was a stunning outcome for sure,” said Bill Bretz, chairman of the county’s Republican Committee.

Just 20 years ago, the county was controlled by Democrats in terms elected offices and registered voters.

In November, voters elected Republicans Nicole Ziccarelli as district attorney and Tim Carson, a Scottdale restaurant owner, as coroner. Republican Gina O’Barto won the prothonotary race. Megan Loughner, who has served as acting clerk since February, easily won her first four-year term.

Commissioner Gina Cerilli Thrasher is the sole Democrat who will hold an elected office at the courthouse.

Double murder, crime spree shock communities

The area was on high alert in May after a couple was gunned down in Penn Township and police later arrested the armed suspect on a busy four-lane highway in North Huntingdon.

The killings culminated a four-day crime spree during which police say Victor Steban, 53, of North Huntingdon shot into homes in Hempfield and Sewickley townships, set his own home on fire, blew up a car and threatened a motorist.

Steban was arrested May 18, two days after police said he ambushed Jacob R. Erdeljac, 40, and Mara Casale, 27, at a Claridge-Elliott Road home. Police converged on him with patrol cars and a helicopter as he walked on Route 30 near his home.

Testimony at Steban’s preliminary hearing suggested he confessed and blamed Erdeljac for a breakup with a girlfriend.

Steban is accused of shooting into the Hempfield residence of Dennis “Rooster” Katona, the former national leader of the Pagan’s Motorcycle Club. Steban told reporters that his actions were “all about getting Rooster.”

Steban also is a suspect in a car bomb set in front a North Huntingdon home May 15.

County prosecutors said they will seek the death penalty if Steban is convicted.

Airport board members grounded over eatery extension

A contentious restaurant lease renewal led to the ouster of two Westmore­land County Airport Authority board members caught in the cross-hairs of two county commissioners.

Doug Chew and Gina Cerilli Thrasher voted to replace Chairman Paul Puleo and Donald “Doc” Giffin after their five-year terms had expired.

Puleo and Giffin voted along with five others to extend a five-year restaurant lease at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport to DeNunzio’s Italian Chophouse, which has been there since 2004.

Thrasher and Chew lobbied the board to seek other proposals and possibly higher rent. Thrasher indicated she would seek to remove board members who opposed her efforts.

Puleo stood by the board’s decision.

“I can’t speak for why they removed me, but the lease was thoughtfully done and we talked about it for several months,” he said.

Other potential vendors met with the board but submitted no concrete proposals before the lease was extended, he said.

Giffin for years represented Arnold Palmer on the board. He was tabbed as the golf legend’s replacement after Palmer died in 2016.

Scottdale businessman Rich Pologruto was chosen to replace Giffin. Paul Whittaker, an excavator and contractor who owns a private airfield in New Alexandria, was picked to replace Puleo.

Landmark restaurant torched in Murrysville

A May fire, believed to be set on purpose, destroyed the Spaghetti & Steakhouse restaurant and upstairs Hot Rod Lounge. The landmark establishment had stood along Route 22 in Murrysville for more than 50 years.

Brian Paul Lucas, 43, of Murrysville, was charged with arson after police said he admitted to starting the blaze. Officers found him sleeping inside a vehicle at a nearby car dealership.

“He stated he was angry and drugs were affecting his behavior,” according to court papers.

Surveillance footage showed a man running around the burning restaurant and then walking across the highway to Jim Shorkey Chevrolet, investigators said.

Lucas is charged with arson, burglary, risking catastrophe, theft, drug possession and related offenses.

In addition to homemade spaghetti, the restaurant featured homemade ravioli, gnocchi and sauce. The lounge hosted live music and comedy acts and was decorated with antique auto memorabilia. Owner Monica Meehan salvaged a large butcher’s block from the kitchen. It was restored by volunteers at the Export Makerspace.

Turbine maker doubles down in Jeannette

Elliott Group in October revealed a new $60 million cryogenic pump test stand on the former Jeannette Glass site.

Crews began building the 13-acre testing facility on Bullitt Avenue in December 2019. It was operational in early December. More than 100 jobs are being created.

“Less than two years from that (ground breaking), a dream has come true,” Mayor Curtis Antoniak said.

Cryogenic pumps and liquid expanders will be tested at the site with liquid nitrogen, natural gas or propane for Elliott Group customers. There are six buildings and a liquid storage tank farm on the site in downtown Jeannette.

Jason Rigone, director of the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corp., said seeing the decrepit site littered with remnants of glass production turn into a new industrial facility over the past 20 years has made him proud of what the public-private partnerships behind the project did for the community.

“The site has made an enormous transformation,” he said.

The Elliott Group’s U.S. headquarters also is in Jeannette, located less than 2 miles away. Elliott, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Tokyo-based Ebara Corp., supplies compressors and turbines for liquefied natural gas plants.

Sex affair with teen lands Pirates All-Star in prison

Former Pirates All-Star pitcher Felipe Vazquez was found guilty and sentenced to serve up to four years in prison for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl.

A Westmoreland jury in May convicted Vazquez, 30, of 15 offenses — including statutory sexual assault, unlawful contact or communication with a minor, indecent assault and corruption of a minor — in connection with a sexual relationship he had with a Scottdale teen, which prosecutors said began in 2017 and lasted for nearly two years.

Vazquez was arrested in September 2019. He is at SCI Camp Hill.

Vazquez, a former all-star from Venezuela, still faces criminal charges in Florida and Missouri in connection with events involving the same teen.

Authorities said he and the girl met through social media in July 2017, when she was 13. About a month later, investigators said, Vazquez drove to Scottdale and had sex with her in his car before driving back to Pittsburgh for a game.

He and the girl continued to exchange sexually explicit text messages until June 2019, when the teen’s mother discovered the relationship and alerted authorities in Florida, prosecutors said.

Vail Resorts buys local ski resorts

It was revealed in December that Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting is selling three ski resorts in the Laurel Highlands — Seven Springs Mountain Resort near Champion, Hidden Valley Resort near Bakersville and Laurel Mountain Ski Area in Ligo­nier Township — for $125 million to Vail Resorts of Colorado.

The Nutting family has owned Seven Springs since 2006. It acquired nearby Hidden Valley Mountain Resort in 2013 for a reported $7.5 million. Nutting in 2016 bought the assets of the long-closed Laurel Mountain Ski Area, which is on land leased by the state.

“The resorts truly are a part of the fabric of this region and a critical community asset,” said Nutting, who in addition to the Pirates owns Wheeling-based Ogden Newspapers Inc., which includes newspapers in Washington and Uniontown.

Nutting is selling the assets related to the mountain operations of the resorts, such as base area lodging, conference center and amenities. His company will retain several neighboring operations, consisting of sporting clays, golf courses, unspecified real estate for potential future development and other amenities.

To mask or not: Decision left to school districts

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in December struck down a school mask mandate.

The state Department of Health in late August ordered that face coverings be worn in all schools. Gov. Tom Wolf announced in November that he would turn over decisions about masking to local school officials starting Jan. 17.

On Dec. 10, the state Supreme Court ruled the state’s acting health secretary did not have the authority to issue a mask mandate. The ruling gave local districts the power to restore their preferred mask policies.

The state court’s ruling did not impact a federal requirement that students and drivers wear masks while on school buses.

In Westmoreland County, Hempfield Area School District returned to a mask-optional policy following the court ruling.

In a letter sent to families, Superintendent Tammy Wolicki said: “The parent shall determine if the child wears a mask while attending school.”

Victory shines in prime time

A 9-year-old Unity girl rode an impressive wave of opera performances to the finale of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” Victory Brinker might not have won the show, but she won a lot of hearts — from fans to celebrity judge Simon Cowell.

After her quarterfinal performance, Cowell told her, “I’m gonna make a prediction: You’re gonna be one of the biggest stars to emerge from one of these shows.”

In July, Victory became the first contestant ever to earn a Golden Buzzer from all four judges, advancing straight to the Season 16 live shows.

The little girl with the big voice started singing when she was 2. At 6, she turned her attention to opera and began learning arias in different languages.

From church, local talent shows, fairs and festivals, she moved to bigger stages: singing the national anthem for the Pittsburgh Pirates, participating in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Pittsburgh Lights and Legends show and appearing in New York City at Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater.

In November, the opera diva released her first EP, “The Wonder of Christmas.”

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