Marijuana green, Seahawks blue among Whatcom County’s top news stories of 2014

Bellingham will appear in the history notes of 2014 as the site of the first legal sale of recreational marijuana in the state.

Residents might remember it more as the year Whatcom County seemed to turn blue and green as Seattle Seahawks fans covered themselves, their cars and their homes in team colors during the Super Bowl run.

Or maybe as the year the city of Bellingham began cleaning up Samish Way.

Some stories — the shooting of a Corgi, a child welfare case misleadingly pitched across the Internet as an attack on home birth — had more followers outside the county than in it, thanks to social media.

In the end a variety of topics, some tragic, some celebratory and one dubbed the “warm blob,” seemed the year’s biggest.

The top 10 local news stories of 2014, as chosen by Bellingham Herald staff, in no particular order:

Oil, coal trains worry residents

At least four headline-grabbing oil train explosions in the U.S. and Canada from mid-2013 to mid-2014 sparked concern over the risks of North Dakota crude rolling through Bellingham on the way to Cherry Point refineries.

Protesters blocked railroad tracks in Everett, Anacortes and Bellingham (the Bellingham railroad sit-in was merely “symbolic”), and some Whatcom groups asked the county for a stronger review of the refineries’ rail terminals. The request was denied.

In response to concerns about an older model of tank car that has proven more likely to puncture, BP Cherry Point announced in October it had switched to safer cars, ahead of any regulatory requirement to do so.

A proposed coal port at Cherry Point remains several years away, if it is built at all, but coal trains were a present concern to county residents in 2014. Track improvements through Bellingham over the summer diverted empty coal trains from Canada through the east county. BNSF Railway officials reassured residents at a meeting Oct. 1 in Acme that the trains would stop Oct. 15. Since then, BNSF has extended its agreements with a Canadian rail company to use the Sumas-Acme route to run empty coal trains at least through Jan. 15, 2015.

The railroad was working on a long-term plan to run coal trains on the Sumas line, BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said in December.— Ralph Schwartz

“Warm blob” bad news for U.S. commercial fishing fleet

A large sockeye salmon run into the Fraser River took shape in 2014, but it was the Canadian fishing industry that reaped the benefits.

According to data from the Pacific Salmon Commission, more than 90 percent of the sockeye salmon went around the northern part of the Vancouver Island through Johnstone Strait into Canadian waters. That left very few fish for the U.S. fleet around the southern part of Vancouver Island through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. By the end of the season in early fall, around 7.9 million sockeye were caught in Canadian waters while around 440,000 were caught in U.S. waters.

The warm blob, as it became known, formed in the winter of 2013 in the Pacific Coast off of Vancouver Island and was about 3 degrees Celsius warmer than normal. Sockeye salmon prefer cooler water, and for the most part went north to get back to the Fraser River. Not only did it have a major impact on U.S. commercial fishermen but also on the processing facilities like Bellingham Cold Storage, which hires hundreds of workers to handle a typical run. — Dave Gallagher

Beer breweries blossom in Bellingham

Norm Peterson of “Cheers” would approve of the strides made in the beer industry in Bellingham in 2014.

Aslan Brewing and Wander Brewing opened earlier this year, while Kulshan Brewing began work on a second Bellingham facility. Boundary Bay Brewery expanded, while Chuckanut Brewery expanded its product line by bottling beer.

Given all the publicity outside of Whatcom County about these developments, including landing on a list of 10 Best Beer Cities by Livability.com, Bellingham quickly became known as an up-and-coming craft beer town.

While the growth in the local industry means more choices, it’s also been a boon to the local economy, with dozens more people employed and a more vibrant nightlife in the downtown area. — Dave Gallagher

Ferndale throat-slashing followed by gunman’s suicide

The aftermath of a botched murder attempt in Ferndale: one woman with a slashed throat, the attacker dead by suicide, his girlfriend charged with complicity to six felonies.

Chad Horne, 34, knocked on the door of a home in the 5300 block of Patriot Lane on a Friday morning in May, according to charging papers. A woman, 40, answered holding a baby. Horne, armed with a gun, forced his way inside. Horne ordered the woman to start up her Chevy Tahoe. Once she came back inside, he zip-tied her hands and slit her throat with a large knife. Before leaving, he fired one gunshot at her, but missed.

She survived that day. Horne did not.

Around that time a man called 9-1-1 to report two fake shootings, one at Ferndale High School and one at the Home Depot in Bellingham where Horne worked.

Police scrambled to respond to all three emergencies at once. They found the Tahoe and forced it off the road at West Smith Road and Northwest Drive. Horne shot himself. Police found a gun, a cell phone, bleach, a black mask and gloves in the car, and zip ties in Horne’s pockets. A motive was never made public.

Prosecutors charged Horne’s girlfriend, Lesley Alexandra Villatoro, 28, with complicity to first-degree attempted murder, and five other crimes, for driving Horne to the victim’s home. She’s awaiting trial. — Caleb Hutton

Republicans win big in mid-terms, 42nd District Senate race pulls in big money

Election night proved to be a big win for Republicans both nationally and in Whatcom County.

Republicans Luanne Van Werven and Vincent Buys beat out Democrats Satpal Sidhu and Joy Monjure for the two 42nd District state House seats, and Republican Doug Ericksen beat Democrat Seth Fleetwood for the 42nd District state Senate seat.

Fleetwood and Ericksen duked it out in one of the most expensive legislative contests in Whatcom County history. Between the two, their campaigns, supporters and opponents dropped about $1.7 million to influence voters with piles of mailers, phone calls, and radio, Internet and television ads.

Aside from hundreds of campaign donations and support received from each candidate’s party, money poured in via independent political committees from big businesses and corporations, as well as billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer.

The race was one of a handful in the state Democrats had hoped to win to again control both houses of the Legislature. Instead, Republicans gained seats in the state Senate, mirroring results in several races for Congress, where Republicans gained seats and control of the Senate. — Samantha Wohlfeil

City says aloha to Samish Way motel

In September, Mayor Kelli Linville announced the city would try to condemn the Aloha Motel, a Samish Way property that has long been a hub for illegal activity.

Over several months, Bellingham police, firefighters, and the Whatcom County Health Department had built a case against the motel, one drug bust, death investigation and meth-contaminated room at a time.

In the month before the announcement, the motel had two deaths, two confirmed drug overdoses, and several drug-related arrests, according to city officials. A man who beat his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend to death in one of the motel’s rooms in December 2013 pleaded guilty to manslaughter in November.

At least 11 rooms tested positive for methamphetamine contamination and were shut down by the health department.

In mid-December, the city filed court proceedings to condemn the property as a blight after the owners, Sang and Mi Yi, did not respond to the city’s offer to pay fair market value of more than $1.3 million for the property. — Samantha Wohlfeil

Bellingham sees blue and green as Seahawks make way to victory

2014 will forever be a special year in the hearts and memories of Seattle Seahawks fans, as the team took home its first Super Bowl victory.

Leading up to the win, Whatcom County fans showed their undying devotion to the team.

Bellingham resident Tim Connors had 15 minutes of fame after he got a tattoo of the ‘Hawks logo with “Super Bowl XLVIII Champs” before the team had played even a single game of what turned into the winning season.

Other 12s took their love one step further than painting their faces and painted the inside and outside of their homes in Seahawks colors.

12th Man flags were flown around the county, superstitions were upheld - think of all those unwashed socks - and Ferndale’s Scrap-It recycling had some fun crushing a 1985 Ford Bronco with a giant ‘Hawks shear.

Fans partied well into the night Sunday, Feb. 2, after the team beat the Denver Broncos 43-8, lighting fireworks, honking car horns and repeatedly calling out “Sea” - “Hawks.” — Samantha Wohlfeil

U.S. Coastguardman confesses to murdering Fairhaven woman, kills himself

A U.S. Coastguardsman murdered a Bellingham woman, fled the state and confessed before taking his own life.

Abigail D. Gulotta, 59, a hairdresser at Blessings Salon and Spa, didn’t show up to work on a Sunday morning in August. A coworker found her in her apartment on 12th Street, bludgeoned to death.

Gulotta had last been seen alive the night before, hanging out with a group of coastguardsmen in a Fairhaven bar, and cozying up to one man in particular.

A Bellingham detective interviewed one person of interest, Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Glenn Arnold, 33, for hours. He said he’d walked with Gulotta for a bit, but they parted ways on a trail near Taylor Dock. Without hard evidence or a confession, police let him go free.

The Coast Guard transferred him from his post aboard the Cutter Sherman to a base in Seattle. By the next morning he’d rented a car en route for San Diego. There he picked up his wedding suit from a storage unit. He drove another 500 miles to a family cabin near Vernon, Ariz. He confessed to his wife over the phone. U.S. Marshals later found Arnold had hanged himself. He’d spray-painted apologies all over the property and left letters addressed to police and his family.

“Lord Forgive Me,” he wrote on the cabin. “Everyone Please Forgive Me.” — Caleb Hutton

Pickup crashes into pedestrians, killing one, in downtown Bellingham

Early in the morning on Memorial Day an out-of-control Ford pickup truck crashed into four pedestrians, killing one, in downtown Bellingham.

Police suspect the driver, Dustin Frederick Brown, 28, had been drinking before he got into his black Ford F-350 on North State Street. Later Brown told police he was sober except for one beer at the Up & Up tavern. Instead, he said his truck went haywire — like it was “literally possessed,” he said — and he was doing everything he could to stop.

The truck hit three men walking on the sidewalk on North State, sending them to St. Joseph hospital. The pickup lurched over a short concrete barrier and ran over Dragan Skrobonja, 37, a longtime resident of Bellingham.

One of the many witnesses, Tyler Dixon, saw the Ford continue crashing into parked cars after it struck, and killed, Skrobonja. Dixon jumped onto the moving truck’s step bar and punched Brown through the open window until he delivered a knockout blow. The Ford came to a rest about 475 feet from where it had been parked.

A breath test on Brown gauged his blood-alcohol level at 0.23, almost three times the legal limit. His trial — for vehicular homicide, four counts of vehicular assault and four counts of hit and run — has been delayed several times since May. It’s tentatively scheduled for January. — Caleb Hutton

Bellingham makes recreational marijuana history

Hundreds of people flocked to Bellingham — along with a crush of journalists from other parts of the state and Canada — on July 8, the first day of legal recreational pot sales in Washington state.

That was when Top Shelf Cannabis, located on Hannegan Road, became the first store in the state to sell marijuana under the system put in place when voters approved Initiative 502 in 2012, legalizing recreational marijuana for those 21 years and older in Washington.

Pot stores were the most public piece of the recreational pot roll-out, which included licensing marijuana growers and processors for a new sector in the agriculture industry in Whatcom County.

The hundreds who showed up at Top Shelf that day said they were there to buy pot, to be part of history or simply out of curiosity. Two days later, 2020 Solutions became the second pot store to open in Bellingham — and among the few in the state to sell marijuana in those early days.

In all, a total of seven businesses have received a license from the Washington state Liquor Control Board to open a pot store in Whatcom County. Five of them are located in or near Bellingham; one is in Maple Falls; and one in the Everson area, although it was unknown if that store has opened.

More recently, two chocolate makers also got the OK from the state to start producing chocolates infused with marijuana.

More businesses are waiting approval from the state, so Whatcom County residents can expect to see more retail stores, growers and processors opening in 2015. — Kie Relyea