Top Stories of 2004

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The state's top news stories are annually selected by the Mississippi staff of The Associated Press and its member news organizations.

The Hargons' disappearance and slaying was the top story in Mississippi in 2004.

It was a photograph of the typical American family; a husband, a wife and the bright freshly scrubbed face of a four-year-old boy. The picture appeared on daily television broadcasts and ran in newspapers across Mississippi and the south. Relatives pleaded for help in finding them.

Two and a half weeks after their Valentine's Day disappearance, the bodies of Michael Hargon, 27; his wife, Rebecca, 29; and their son, James Patrick, were found buried under debris of a burned building in rural Smith County. The site was 100 miles from the Hargon's Vaughan community home in rural Yazoo County and only a short drive from the house of Earnest Lee Hargon, a cousin now awaiting trial for the murders.

Earnest Lee Hargon has denied any part in the killings that triggered extensive searches across the state and captured national attention. He remains behind bars pending trial.

Michael Hargon was fatally shot, apparently while still in the house, and his wife and son were strangled sometime later, autopsy reports show.

Police and prosecutors have not commented on a motive, but investigators had been checking into land that Michael Hargon inherited from an uncle to determine whether it was connected to the slayings.

If convicted in a trial presently scheduled for March, Earnest Lee Hargon could receive the death penalty.

Among other events ranking among the top stories of the year were the kidnapping and escape of Thomas Hamill of Macon from his Iraqi captors and the final settlement of a college desegregation lawsuit that spanned four decades.

Eight months ago, Hamill was a half-world away from the safe-haven of his east Mississippi hometown. On April ninth, Hamill's fuel truck convoy was ambushed on the outskirts of Baghdad and the private contractor became a hostage.

As the story unfolded, Hamill credited his 25 years of truck driving as helping him figure out which captors to speak with and which not to even look in the eye.

Hamill, 44, escaped May second from a farmhouse about 50 miles north of Baghdad and ran a half-mile to a patrol of U.S. military vehicles.

The story of the former dairy farmer's 24 days as a hostage in Iraq became a book. Through it all, Hamill credited God with getting him through the rough ordeal.

It took nearly 30 years after Jake Ayers, Sr. filed a lawsuit to improve academic programs and facilities at the state's three historically black universities to reach a settlement.

The state and most plaintiffs agreed in 2002 to a deal that would distribute $503 million over 17 years to Alcorn State University, Jackson State University and Mississippi Valley State University.

Plaintiffs, including Ayers' widow, Lillie, fought the settlement. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a final appeal in the desegregation case.

There will be expanded academic programs, building and facilities improvements and summer development programs at the three universities.

Other top stories in the state:

4) Some 50,000 Medicaid beneficiaries in the Poverty Level Aged and Disabled category were to lose benefits October first as part of a new law designed to save money in the fast-growing health care program. A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the PLAD participants, challenging the state's notification process. The change was approved in the 2004 legislative session, but many lawmakers turned against it once Medicaid participants came forward with horror stories of doing without necessary prescription drugs and other medical programs.

Gov. Haley Barbour had urged lawmakers to pass what he called a Medicaid reform bill. Barbour, lawmakers and Medicaid Executive Director Doctor Warren Jones said most of the PLAD participants were eligible for Medicare.

By switching them to Medicare, which is wholly funded by the federal government, the state could save money in Medicaid, which operates on state and federal funds, they said. Health advocates complained that Medicare's prescription drug plan was too limited.

5) At least nine soldiers with Mississippi ties were killed in Iraq in 2004 as thousands of more Mississippi troops headed off to duty. Among them was Builder Chief Petty Officer Joel E. Baldwin, 37, was a native of Panama and was a member of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Seven in Gulfport. Baldwin was one of 22 people killed an explosion in Mosul, Iraq shortly before Christmas.

6) Former Gov. Kirk Fordice, a staunch Republican who idolized Ronald Reagan and led a campaign against wasteful spending and career politicians during two terms, died of complications of leukemia in September.

The barrel-chested, hard-nosed Fordice, 70, served as governor from 1992-2000. He was the first Republican elected governor in more than 100 years and the first governor elected to two successive terms.

7) A fraternity fire at the University of Mississippi killed three students in August. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said in October that the cause of the blaze remained "undetermined."

The report said the fire that killed Howard Stone, 19, of Martinsville, Virginia; William Townsend, 19, of Clarksdale; and Jordan Williams, 20, of Atlanta, started August 27 in a basement bedroom of the Alpha Tau Omega house.

ATF investigators say they found no evidence that the fire was intentionally set and there was no evidence of foul play. Twenty-three students and a house mother escaped the fire at the two-story, brick-and-wood frame building.

8) Haley Barbour, a long-time leader in the Mississippi and national Republican parties, left his job as one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington to become governor. About 5,000 people gathered on the Capitol's south lawn on January 13 to watch him become Mississippi's 63rd governor.

Barbour, 56, used his 14-minute inaugural address to call for unity and to pledge strong job creation efforts in a state that has struggled during tough economic times the past three years.

9) The Washington-based American Tort Reform Association in December dropped Mississippi from its "judicial hellhole" list. In June, Barbour signed a new lawsuit limitations bill, which became law on September 1.

Among other things, the new law caps pain and suffering damage awards at $1 million in most lawsuits. It keeps the $500,000 pain and suffering cap adopted in 2002 for medical malpractice cases, but it erases a cost of living provision that would have increased the $500,000 cap over the years.

10) About 260,000 residents and tourists were ordered out of Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties in September as Hurricane Ivan churned unpredictably in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ivan was blamed for more than 50 deaths in the United States. Three died in Mississippi in accidents caused by strong winds far from the Gulf Coast, and while power poles were snapped in half, debris covered city streets, and thousands of Mississippians were left without power, officials and residents were thankful it wasn't worse.

Residents and local governments in about a dozen counties in Mississippi were declared eligible for some form of federal assistance.