Editor's Note: The Santa Rosa Press Gazette presents a look back at 2017's particularly memborable stories. Here are our picks, in chronological order. What are yours? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page or in the comments.
1. Weeklong manhunt over: Boyette commits suicide
A grisly week of violence that spread across state lines from Northwest Florida to Alabama ended in early February when William "Billy" Boyette Jr., believed responsible for three deaths and another shooting, killed himself inside a Georgia motel room.
First Judicial Circuit State Attorney Bill Eddins reported that he spoke by phone with the sheriff of Troup County, Georgia, who confirmed Boyette had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Sheriff James Woodruff also confirmed that Boyette’s accomplice, Mary Barbara Craig Rice, had surrendered.
A resident on Feb. 7 spotted the stolen vehicle the two were seen driving and alerted authorities, who surrounded the west Georgia motel, Woodruff told reporters, according to video posted online by WTVM-TV. Boyette allowed Rice to leave the motel room early that evening, and she was seen crying while being taken into custody, Woodruff said. Authorities then heard a single gunshot from inside the motel room and subsequently found Boyette dead inside, Woodruff said.
Authorities in Alabama had issued capital murder warrants in the case earlier that week as the search for the pair entered its second week.
2. Death of Greg Evers felt across Florida
In August, Florida residents were saddened to hear that former state Sen. Greg Evers died.
Evers’ 2005 GMC pickup on Aug. 21 entered the deep water of Penny Creek near Baker. A passerby eventually noticed a damaged guardrail and reported what looked like a submerged vehicle, according to a 911 tape.
A heart issue may have caused Evers to lose control of his pickup truck and plunge off the bridge near Baker.
An autopsy report lists arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease as contributing to Evers’ death. Drowning is listed as the actual cause of death.
The Aug. 21 single-vehicle wreck was determined to have been an accident.
Evers’ family remembered him as "a tireless force for his constituents" and a personality larger than life.
"His presence always brightened a room," they said in a press release. "Words cannot describe the loss we feel, but we have been blessed at the outpouring of support from our friends and neighbors."
3. Alcohol sales open new opportunities
Sunday alcohol sales became legal north of the Yellow River in Santa Rosa County and in Milton.
The impact was evident: Tin Cow restaurant owner Joe Abston considered closing the Pace location before the ordinance passed. Blackwater Bistro manager Glenn Hill said the restaurant opened five new positions and the restaurant would open on Sundays because of the measure.
Opponents were concerned that incidents of drunk driving would increase but they didn’t increase when the county first allowed alcohol sales in 2007, according to the Santa Rosa Sheriff's Office.
4. Santa Rosa’s graduation rate increases
The high school graduation rate in the U.S. reached an all-time high in 2016 at 83 percent, which mirrors that of Santa Rosa County; Florida’s rate is 78 percent.
Local schools touted their own improved numbers.
"Our graduation rate over about a six- or seven-year period went from 75 percent to 91 percent," Milton High School Assistant Principal Chad Rowell said.
5. Milton couple work to stop Indian Bayou pollution
Diane and Gary Nelms wanted to do something about red clay that turned Indian Bayou a shade of orange and affected flora and fauna.
The couple said construction on Interstate 10 and the regular grading of unpaved San Juan Road constantly brought red clay into Indian Bayou.
More residents became involved with the effort, as did Santa Rosa County, the Florida Department of Transportation, the Northwest Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The county reduced maintenance on San Juan Road and other pollution-reducing actions.
The other agencies agreed in an Oct. 17 meeting to work together to stop the pollution.
6. Commissioners OK land purchase for courthouse
Discussion on replacing the Santa Rosa County courthouse goes back 20 years, but the judicial center's new location appears to be decided.
Commissioners voted Sept. 14 to buy a 19-acre parcel of land on Avalon Boulevard from JDL, LLC for $850,000. It was a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Sam Parker, Bob Cole and Don Salter in favor of buying the land, and Commissioners Rob Williamson and Lane Lynchard opposing.
Commissioners in December discussed installing two signs on Avalon Boulevard and one on Mulat Road indicating the new judicial center’s location.
Funding the courthouse’s construction is the commission’s next task, which it has consistently wanted to do by way of a half-cent sales tax.
Santa Rosa County residents may expect to see the tax on a 2018 election referendum.
7. Tribe breaks ground on Native American Cultural Center
The Santa Rosa Creek Indian Tribe broke ground on their Native American Cultural Center Aug. 1 at their tribal grounds, 95 acres located on Willard Norris Road.
The center will house artifacts and include a multi-purpose room for seminars, musical demonstrations and educational presentations. Genealogy resources will also be available for the public to research their own Native American ancestry.
The tribe partly funded the center with $108,200 it won in 2016 from IMPACT 100.
The tribe holds an annual Pow Wow open to the public but the center will be the tribe’s first permanent structure in the county.
8. South Florida cop reunites with ‘angel in jeans and work boots’
Finally, to round out our list: It was the feel-good story of the year. Officer Tommy Burgs was passing through town as his family evacuated Pembroke Pines, near Fort Lauderdale. He stopped in the Milton Firestone Sept. 8 after his RV’s tire blew out, but rather than buy two new tires, David Cooper bought him four new tires.
Burgs wanted to thank Cooper and the Firestone crew at the time with donuts from neighboring Milton Quality Bakery. However, owner Frances Michener heard Burgs’ story and gave him the donuts for free.
Burgs returned to Milton Sept. 20 on his way to retrieve his RV from Pensacola. He told Cooper he was ready to quit the police force before his encounter in Milton.
"I had no idea," Cooper said. "I don’t think things happen by accident ... God’s got a plan and this is part of it."