BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Western New Yorkers saw change at the highest levels of politics and religion in 2019. Its backyard became a backdrop to viral images, and its hometown heroes became national ones. Here are seven stories that defined the year:
Following a nearly two-year investigation by I-Team Chief Investigator Charlie Specht into sexual abuse and its cover-up in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, Bishop Richard J. Malone resigned in the beginning of December. Throughout 2019, the investigation began to focus more on Bishop Malone's policies and practices. In August, the Child Victim Act's "look-back window" took effect, allowing dozens of alleged victims to file lawsuits against the diocese.
Momentum grew as a second whistleblower came forward with secret recordings of the bishop. The recordings detailed Malone's actions regarding allegations against Rev. Jeffrey Nowak.
Bills co-owner Kim Pegula said it best when she tweeted, "Pancho was a pillar of positive strength and energy for me and all of #BillsMafia." Beloved by fans, players, coaches and owners, Ezra "Pancho Billa" Castro's positive energy and enthusiasm for his team was unmatched.
Following his passing in May, Pancho Billa has left a legacy of positivity. A book called "Pancho Power" was released. Bills fans also worked to honor one of his last wishes, to give backpacks to kids in need. Fans donated time and money to create Panchospacks to give to children.
In April, four Florida men were arrested at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, accused of trying to enter the United States with marijuana and three firearms. Among the men was Bill Kapri, better known as rapper Kodak Black. The four men were arraigned in Lewiston and taken to Niagara County Jail.
Hours later, the jail became a backdrop to one of 2019's most viral videos. Kodak Black posted bail, then left the jailhouse shielding his face with a fan of cash.
Kodak Black was arrested again a month later in Florida on unrelated charges.
On August 28, 18-year-old Christopher Belter of Lewiston was sentenced to two years of interim probation after pleading guilty to sex crimes. That same day, a 19-year-old Wheatfield man received a one-year interim probation sentence after pleading guilty to a classmate's rape. In both cases, 7 Eyewitness News chose to identify the defendants because they did not have youthful offender status at the time of sentencing, and cameras were allowed in the courtroom. If they successfully complete interim probation, the defendants may still be granted youthful offender status.
Belter was accused of sexually assaulting teen girls at his mother's home in Lewiston during parties. Belter's mother and step-father were charged with supplying alcohol at those parties.
The crime and the investigation that followed caused shockwaves at Niagara-Wheatfield High School, where both the perpetrator and the victim attended classes. The perpetrator was allowed in the school even after his accuser came forward. He was only removed from school after his guilty plea. In October, 7 Eyewitness News senior reporter Eileen Buckley spoke with rape survivor Taylor Gordon.
Following a federal indictment in an insider trading investigation, Representative Chris Collinspleaded guilty to making false statements and conspiring to commit securities fraud. A day before pleading guilty, he resigned as representative of New York's 27th District in the House of Representatives. He had served in Congress since 2012, winning re-election in 2016.
Collins was indicted in August 2018, along with his son, Cameron Collins, and Stephen Zarsky, the father of Cameron's fianceé. Collins was accused of giving his son information about Innate Immunotherapeutics, Ltd. before it was public. Cameron Collins then sold large amounts of stock in the company and spread the information to Zarsky, who allegedly gave the information to his brother in turn. Chris Collins had been the second-largest stakeholder in Innate Immunotherapeutics at the time.
Following his father's guilty plea, Cameron Collins pleaded guilty just days later.
Collins' resignation leaves a key House seat open, one that could be filled in a special election expected in the spring.
In June, Staff Sergeant David Bellavia, a Batavia native, became the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor from the Iraq War. Bellavia was awarded the medal for his heroism during the second battle of Fallujah.
When his platoon was ambushed by insurgents, Bellavia bravely went into a dark house where he knew several enemy fighters would be present and cleared the building. Bellavia single-handedly killed four insurgents and seriously injured another, saving his platoon.
There was talk in the fall that Bellavia would run for Congress, but Bellavia announced in October that he would not run.
On the morning of September 16, a woman found a little boy sleeping in a box for stray cats on her Potomac Avenue porch. He repeatedly told her, "the car's on fire."
The boy was later identified by the first name "Noelvin," and his grandmother was found in Florida. The boy's parents hadn't made contact with her in days. Just a mile away, a burned-out car was located with human remains inside. Police released surveillance video showing two men leaving the scene of that car fire with Noelvin.
Less than two weeks later, human remains were found in a fire pit on Box Avenue. Police believed the investigation was linked to that of Noelvin and his parents. In December, the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team obtained court documents identifying one of the men in the surveillance video as Jariel Cobb, who has been in custody on unrelated drug charges since September. In all, five people are named in the court documents. No charges have been filed.