Local News

Shaw Local’s Top 10 Northern Illinois news stories of 2020

Planned closures of two area nuclear plants, fallout from 5-year-old AJ Freund’s murder, turmoil at Joliet City Hall among the top stories of the year

1. Coronavirus pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in full force in early March, upending life as we know it by closing schools, businesses and canceling events throughout the country. The virus has infected hundreds of thousands of Illinois residents and left thousands dead.

The ripple effects of this virus impacted all facets of “normal life” as many people traded in their cubicles for the kitchen table for work space and a makeshift classroom for the kids, while essential workers continued to put on a brave face as they showed up for their shifts, despite potential for exposure to COVID-19.

The state of Illinois was effectively shut down until the end of June, when restrictions eased, allowing for outdoor, and then eventually indoor, dining.

As the weather got cooler, the debate over opening schools ignited, with some districts in Northern Illinois returning to a full-time in-person schedule, while others experimented with a hybrid learning model or stayed in fully remote.

The pandemic rages on, as cases continue to surge in Northern Illinois and across the country. Local businesses continue to take the brunt of the restrictions, leaving many empty storefronts as they’re forced to close. In Geneva, Fox Fire restaurant filed a temporary restraining order in November against Gov. JB Pritzker’s Tier 1 mitigations, which prohibited indoor dining. A Kane County judge granted the order, which was later overturned by a higher court. Restaurants in McHenry and other counties also followed suit.

2. Black Lives Matter protests

Civil unrest broke out across the country and in Northern Illinois in early summer after video surfaced of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man living in Minneapolis, for 8 minutes. Floyd’s death sparked massive outrage across the country, as marchers took to the streets for demonstrations. While most of the protests were peaceful, some took a violent turn. A police car was set on fire in Aurora, while several businesses were damaged. In DeKalb, looters damaged local businesses on Annie Glidden Road and Hillcrest Drive.

Peaceful demonstrations were held in just about every county in Northern Illinois, with protestors calling for an end to police brutality. In Kane County, protestors in Geneva marched down Route 38 after bringing their message to the intersection of Third and State streets. Protests were also held in St. Charles, Batavia and Elburn and throughout Shaw Local’s markets.

In Kendall County, hundreds of people attended peaceful protests in Oswego, Yorkville and Plano. In Plano, protesters were met by a small group of counter-protesters, but the event went on without incident. The rioting in Chicago and Aurora prompted concerned downtown Oswego business owners to board up their stores along Main Street for several days. The boards came off the buildings as concerns over the prospects of local rioting eased.

3. Record turnout in November election

The Nov. 3 general election had one of the highest voter turnouts in U.S. history. Several communities in Northern Illinois also saw record turnout, leaving many races too close to call on election night. Kane County not only saw a record turnout, but the highest number of early and mail-in votes.

The McHenry County Clerk’s Office reported 237,640 registered voters — an increase of 19,462 over 2016 — and 165,512 ballots cast for a voter turnout rate of 70%, matching the 2008 peak.

Voter turnout in Kendall County was 76% — the highest since the 1992 presidential election. The Biden-Harris presidential ticket carried the county with 51% of the vote to 45% for Trump-Pence.

4. Exelon plans to close Byron, Dresden nuclear plants in 2021

Plans remain in place for Exelon Generation to close the Byron Nuclear Plant as well as its Dresden plant in Morris in September 2021.

Exelon announced its intentions on Aug. 27. The Byron plant has around 700 regular employees. It was licensed to operate for another 20 years. The decision to close it has been “in the works for some time,” according to the Aug. 27 press release.

The two plants face revenue shortfalls in the hundreds of millions of dollars because of declining energy prices and market rules that “allow fossil fuel plants to underbid clean resources.”

“Although we know in our heads that shutting down the uneconomic Illinois plants is necessary to preserve even more jobs elsewhere, our hearts ache today for the thousands of talented women and men that have served Illinois families for more than a generation and will lose their jobs because of poorly conceived energy policies,” said Christopher Crane, president and CEO of Exelon. “But we are only about a year away from shutdown and we need to give our people, the host communities, and regulators time to prepare.”

Exelon has not ruled out keeping the plants open if things change with policymakers. Since the announcement, groups have mobilized to lobby for the plants to remain open.

The Byron Station Response Committee is spearheaded by Byron School District Superintendent Buster Barton, whose district received $19.1 million taxes from the plant last year.

The Byron plant pays one of the highest property tax bills in the United States annually. In 2019, the plant’s main real estate tax bill was $34.9 million.

“It just goes to show you how much our community cares about our school district and how important the power plant is to our funding,” Barton said. “We think this committee will help identify and mobilize groups that can spread our message that the power plant should be kept open.”

5. AJ Freund’s parents plead guilty, sentenced

In August, JoAnn Cunningham was sentenced to 35 years in prison for first-degree murder after entering a blind guilty plea in the 2019 death of her 5-year-old son, AJ Freund.

In September, Andrew Freund was sentenced to 30 years after pleading guilty to aggravated battery to a child, involuntary manslaughter and concealment of a homicidal death.

Also in September, former Illinois Department of Children and Family Services investigator Carlos Acosta and his former supervisor Andrew Polovin pleaded not guilty to charges of reckless conduct and endangering the life or health of a child.

Both of those cases remain ongoing in what is one of the most high profile crimes that McHenry County has seen.

6. Shawn’s Coffee Shop case

A longtime Sycamore business owner, Shawn Thrower, 62, owner of Shawn’s Coffee Shop and Princess Alex Ice Cream in downtown Sycamore, will not serve jail time after he was found guilty Oct. 15 of battering a 15-year-old female employee.

Thrower was charged in February with two counts of misdemeanor battery after records show he picked her up, slapped her buttocks and bit her on the neck during one of her shifts at the café. He was sentenced Nov. 13 by DeKalb County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Pedersen to 24 months of court supervision.

Thrower testified in his own defense Oct. 15 in a bench trial with no jury and denied battering the girl, though court records show he’d previously told Sycamore police he “grabbed somewhere I shouldn’t have.”

The victim and her mother, of Sycamore, both testified and were present for the sentencing.

The case brought division for months throughout DeKalb County over Thrower, a longtime, well-liked business man, a 1997 graduate of Northern Illinois University and a star athlete, and the victim, working in the first months of her first job, who during the trial and sentencing said she was hesitant to come forward with her allegations because of his public reputation.

Thrower’s charges and court proceedings led to strong reactions from the public, including several protests held by local activists standing up for Thrower’s victim. Others expressed strong support of Thrower, patronizing his businesses during the protests and condemning those who spoke out against him.

7. Turmoil at Joliet City Hall

Controversy keeps swirling around City Hall, creating a situation that one former councilman said makes Joliet “the laughing stock of Illinois.”

Whether they’re laughing or not, state officials were dragged into Joliet controversies a few times in 2020.

State police have been investigating Mayor Bob O’Dekirk’s involvement in a Black Lives Matter scuffle. And the mayor called for the state attorney general to investigate Joliet police’s handling Eric Lurry, who died after a January arrest, and a video of the incident.

Joliet police have referred a complaint to state police made by Councilman Don Dickinson, who resigned after filing a police report discussing a naked photo of himself and alleging an intimidation scheme involving the mayor.

Meanwhile, Joliet continues to look for someone in Illinois or elsewhere to fill a city manager’s office that has been occupied by three interim city managers in the last two years.

8. Derecho hits Illinois

The derecho that swept through the Midwest on Aug. 10 left its fair share of damage in several Illinois communities, including Ottawa, where an EF-1 tornado damaged the Floor to Ceiling business and followed the Illinois and Michigan Canal path to the Fox River.

Calling La Salle County the hardest hit area in Central Illinois, Ameren Illinois took nearly a week to restore power to neighborhoods in Ottawa. Matthiessen and Starved Rock state parks shut down for more than a month as crews cleared up debris.

9. Old Caterpillar plant gets a new lease on life in Kendall County

For decades after it opened in 1957, Caterpillar’s massive Oswego Township plant near Montgomery had been the largest employer in Kendall County.

But over the years the number of jobs at the plant had dwindled from more than 6,000 to less than 1,500, prompting community-wide speculation concerning the plant’s future. In March, just days before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the heavy equipment manufacturer announced it had sold the plant to a White Plains, New York-based firm that specializes in redeveloping industrial properties.

Meanwhile, Caterpillar officials also announced they would lease back a portion of the plant from the new owners and keep about 500 engineering and product support jobs at the facility.

Then, in October, Kendall County Board Chairman Scott Gryder announced another major manufacturer, Bombardier Inc. of Montréal, Quebec, Canada, may lease a section of the plant for the purpose of assembling passenger rail cars for Metra. Gryder said the Bombardier operation would bring about 300 jobs to the plant and further help solidify its future as major employment site in the county.

10. Pheasant Run closes, Wahlburger’s opens

This year, one St. Charles landmark closed, while another much-anticipated business finally opened its doors.

Pheasant Run closed on March 1. The iconic resort opened in 1963 on land that was once a dairy farm. The resort did not sell at an auction last spring, but in September, the St. Charles City Council approved a $5.2-million incentive for the Pheasant Run Mega Center after McGrath Honda expressed interest in expanding and relocating to the site. As of now, there are no plans for the resort site. An auction of the resort’s memorabilia was held in August, where the public was able to bid on everything from room decor and food service items to golf and lawn care equipment.

Wahlburger’s, which is co-owned by St. Charles resident Donnie Wahlberg and his brothers, finally opened to much fanfare last summer. The opening came more than a year after breaking ground at the corner of Route 38 and Randall Road, as previously planned openings were delayed because of the pandemic. Hundreds of fans lined up in the early-morning hours to get a glimpse of Donnie and his wife, media personality Jenny McCarthy.