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Top 10 stories of 2021 | Schools

Top 10 stories of 2021 | Schools

Tragic shootings, frigid temperatures, forgiveness and heroism marked Muskogee’s news in 2021.

1. The year’s top story was notched by gunfire that echoed across a Muskogee neighborhood during the early morning hours on Feb. 2, leaving five children and a young man dead. The children’s mother, Brittany Anderson, survived critical injuries sustained during the shooting.

The deceased included Jalaiya Pridgeon, 1; Jaidus Pridgeon, 3; Harmony Anderson, 5: Nevaeh Pridgeon, 6; Que’dynce Anderson, 9; and Javarion Lee, 24. 

Accused gunman Jarron Deajon Pridgeon, 25, was arrested and charged with six counts of first-degree murder and shooting Anderson with an intent to kill her.

Neighbors told police Anderson and her children had lived in the home only three or four weeks before the deadly shooting occurred. During that short period of time, the children were known and liked by neighbors — they were memorialized at a candlelight vigil and balloon launch. 

Damon Smith, who used to walk by the house with his dog, said the children “were always waving at me.”

Their deaths impacted schools the children attended in Fort Gibson and Muskogee. Counselors were made available at Muskogee’s Creek Elementary and at the Early Learning Center and Intermediate Elementary in Fort Gibson.

District Judge Bret Smith on Aug. 10 determined the state’s evidence was sufficient for Pridgeon to stand trial for murder and related charges. Smith also ordered Pridgeon’s deferred sentence be accelerated and he be sent to prison for convictions of assault, battery, or assault and battery with a dangerous weapon; threat to perform act of violence and malicious injury to property. 

Pridgeon is expected to serve 10 years in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and six months in the Muskogee City/County Detention Facility for those convictions. Those sentences, according to court documents, will be served concurrently.

On Aug. 26, then-Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge filed paperwork required to seek the death penalty in Pridgeon’s murder case.

 2. Secrecy surrounding Jarron Dejaun Pridgeon’s preliminary hearing and delays releasing court-ordered transcripts of the preliminary hearing, which was closed to the public, was the second major story of the year in Muskogee.

District Judge Bret Smith denied access to the hearing in August after deciding to simultaneously hear a deprived-child matter with the murder hearing. Smith said the children’s right to privacy outweighed the public’s right to attend the criminal hearing. 

The judge rejected arguments made on behalf of the Muskogee Phoenix and the public that access to court proceedings is a First Amendment right, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press intervened on behalf of the Muskogee Phoenix in an attempt to open the proceeding to the public.

In September, District Judge Timothy King ordered a transcript be prepared and made available to Pridgeon and the Muskogee Phoenix at the court’s expense. The judge noted during a status hearing weeks later the transcript should be available by mid-December. 

When the courthouse closed for the New Year’s holiday, the Phoenix had yet to receive a transcript of Pridgeon’s preliminary transcript. The public access to the deadliest shootings in Muskogee history has still been denied. 

3. Teens die after a police pursuit. 

Two Nebraska teens died Feb. 28 after a high-speed police pursuit in the north part of Muskogee. Farrah Rauch, 17, was shot and killed by a Muskogee police officer, who was returning shots Rauch fired at him. Joseph Dugan, 17, shot himself as officers approached him in a wooded area.

The two teens had been reported as runaways from Blair, Nebraska, and had gone as far as Florida before ending up in Oklahoma. The two had attempted a carjacking in Muskogee and stole another before leading police on a high-speed pursuit.

Four police officers were placed on administrative leave after the shooting. Later that month, Loge decided not to file charges against the officers, stating the officers acted “within the scope of their course of employment.”

4. MPD chief, father of victim offer forgiveness.

An act of forgiveness arose out of the Feb. 28 shootings involving the two teens.

Steven Rauch, father of Farrah Rauch, asked Muskogee Police Chief Johnny Teehee and the four police officers involved with the shooting to speak at her daughter’s funeral March 10, 2021.

The elder Rauch, an investigator for 35 years, said he first wanted to assess blame for his daughter’s death. However, upon learning his daughter had a weapon and was firing at the officers, he felt for the police. 

Rauch said he talked to Teehee, who mentioned how devastated the officers were. Rauch said Teehee “had such an incredible demeanor about him.” 

At the Farrah Rauch’s funeral, Teehee talked about carrying the message of forgiveness with him for the rest of his life.

5. Muskogee sixth-grader saves two lives in one day.

Muskogee sixth-grader Davyon Johnson knew what to to when he found people in trouble Dec. 9.

Davyon was in his classroom at the 6th and 7th Grade Academy when a student stumbled in, choking on a bottle cap. Davyon performed abdominal thrusts on the student and the cap popped out. 

He said he had learned to do the thrust, commonly called the Heimlich maneuver, on YouTube.

That afternoon, she helped a disabled neighbor escape her burning house. 

“She was on her porch,” she said. “But I thought, being a good citizen, I would cross and help her get into her truck and leave.”

For his efforts, Davyon received plaudits from Muskogee Police Department, Muskogee County Sheriff’s Office and Muskogee Public Schools.

His act also caught the attention from news outlets and Twitter readers across the United States.

6. Sub-freezing temperatures paralyze community.

Snow and sub-freezing temperatures didn’t seem to end in mid-February.

Ice one-eighth inch thick covered Muskogee and area roads starting Feb. 10. The ice kept accumulating over the weekend. Power went out to thousands of customers.

Sub-freezing temperatures continued through the following Friday, causing rolling power outages. Muskogee firefighters reported house fires on four consecutive days.

The storm caused extensive damage to roads and schools. Commissioner Ken Doke said the storm and resulting “frost heave” caused more than $1 million in damage to county roads. At Muskogee High School, a frozen waterline broke over the main 2,000 amp service breaker. One of the breakers ran the boiler system, and there was no way to heat the school at -9 degree temperatures. Another waterline broke at the district’s Grant Foreman Elementary building.

7. Muskogee man sentenced for his part in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack.

Andrew Ericson, 24, pleaded guilty in September for parading, demonstrating or picketing in the U.S. Capitol. Prosecutors agreed to withdraw three additional charges in exchange for Ericson’s promise to cooperate with further investigations.

He was sentenced in December to serve 20 days in confinement, two years probation and pay $500 in restitution.

A social media photo of Ericson shows him lounging in a conference room of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Jan. 6. His feet are propped on the table. 

He also is said to have taken a beer from a Capitol mini refrigerator.

According to court documents, Ericson was identified through cell phone records and a witness as having been a part of the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol. The invasion was carried out during a joint session of the U.S. Congress in an attempt to stop affirmation of presidential election results.

8. New school buildings open.

In August, students entered new buildings at Tony Goetz Elementary and the 8th and 9th Grade Center at Alice Robertson.

The new buildings, built on the sites of previous schools, were the first somewhat finished products of the $110 million bond issue voters approved in 2019.

The new Tony Goetz building replaced a building that teachers and administrators said had issues with flooding and asbestos. Tony Goetz students had spent the previous school year split between Whittier and Harris-Jobe elementary schools while their new building was under construction.

The new AR is a smaller, one-story version of the original 81-year old building, but it keeps the style of the original’s tall grand entrance.

Decreases in enrollment, construction issues and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic prompted shifts in school sites.

A smaller Whittier building became Rougher Innovations Academy, which offers online and on-site learning for students in third through 12th grade.

Grant Foreman Elementary, which had housed a Sixth Grade Academy is undergoing extensive interior remodeling. Students from Sadler Arts Academy are scheduled to move to Grant Foreman while their school is remodeled.

9. COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The start of 2021 brought renewed hope when Muskogee area residents began receiving vaccinations against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

Events canceled the previous year reappeared on the schedule, many with caveats to stay socially distanced and please wear masks. 

February showed a nose-dive drop in cases as more people got vaccinated.

However, as the year progressed, COVID remained, surging at times or lingering as a background reminder.

A late summer surge, prompted by the Delta variant, prompted Muskogee Public Schools to institute a mask mandate in September. 

School districts and communities took advantage of millions of dollars in COVID-related relief funds.

As of Wednesday, Muskogee County reported a cumulative total of 14,243 cases and 279 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

10. Royal Casket Building collapses.

A historic building that housed a YMCA and the Royal Casket Company met its end in August.

The building had been a fixture at Court and Main streets since around 1900. The western portion of the building collapsed during the night of Aug. 13. Partial east and south walls remained as crews removed debris from the fallen section. 

There were no injuries.

The building had been declared unfit for habitation in 2016 after back walls and part of the roof collapsed. 

City councilors authorized the use of emergency funds to remove debris from the buildings.

What remained after the August collapse was demolished and cleared.