2017 Year in Review: Top local stories

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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - As we near the end of 2017, WTHR's digital staff compiled a list of the 13 most clicked-on local stories on WTHR.com and the WTHR News app from the past year.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The list below does not necessarily represent what WTHR.com considers the "biggest" or most important stories of the year. Rather, it represents the stories or ongoing storylines that were most clicked on by our readers across our digital platforms. These stories also represent the most clicked on "hard news" stories of the year; Click here for our look back at the lighter side of 2017.

Looking for a refresher? Just click on the headline to see our full coverage.

13) 13 Investigates: BMV refunds $62 million in excessive fees

Indiana's Bureau of Motor Vehicles agreed to repay motorists more than $62 million it collected in excessive fees to settle a class-action lawsuit. Attorney Irwin Levin, with the Indianapolis firm of Cohen & Malad, says the settlement included $28.5 million in refunds for customers who were overcharged between 2002 and mid-2006 for driver licenses, vehicle registrations, identification cards and other services. It also includes $33.6 million the agency began returning to customers last year for transactions from 2006 to 2014. Together with previous settlements and refunds, the BMV has admitted to charging drivers more than $115 million in higher-than-allowed taxes and fees over the past 15 years.

"It's about making sure we offer help and a way out to these young victims..."

12) 84 kids saved in sex trafficking sting

The FBI's sex trafficking investigation called "Operation Cross Country XI" ran from October 12-15. In all, agents said 84 minors were saved and 120 traffickers captured across the country, including some in Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and South Bend. The average age of victims rescued in this operation was 15 years old, but they spanned in ages to as young as 3 months old.

11) Charter school students suspended for Snapchat sex video

Five students at Carpe Diem Charter School in Indianapolis were suspended after a sex video surfaced in October. A 16-year-old male student and a female classmate secretly made the video in a secluded area on the second floor of the school building between classes. An innocent student alerted school authorities after learning the girl in the video had started getting threats.

10) 13 Investigates: Combat zone birth

An Indiana mother is fighting to get answers from the military about why she was deployed to Afghanistan while pregnant and allowed to birth in a combat zone.

Ashley Shelton and her now five-year-old son Benjamin.
Ashley Shelton and her now 5-year-old son, Benjamin. (provided photo)

Pvt. Ashley Shelton received deployment orders for Afghanistan in 2012 while stationed in Germany. A routine pregnancy test 30 days before she was to ship out was positive. A second test came back negative and a third was indecisive, so the military sent a blood sample to London for testing to get a definitive answer.

Shelton said the Army sent her to Afghanistan while they waited for the test to come back, and she says she never heard any more about it. Shelton says she did not know she was pregnant until her water broke and her son was born.

Shelton says the military tried to keep the birth a secret.

Now, she is home. Her son is dealing with a number of birth defects. She wants answers about how a system designed to protect her and her unborn child failed.

Sen. Joe Donnelly says he's looking into the case on her behalf.

9) "Heroin in the Heartland" subject dies of overdose

Cara Crane said she first tried heroin on "Senior Skip Day" at Lebanon High School, and she was immediately hooked. She and a man we spoke with, John, entered rehab for their addiction but a year later, Cara was in prison for burglary and theft. John faced more serious charges for dealing heroin. In April, Cara's mother told us her daughter overdosed three times in three weeks. The final overdose killed her. Cara was just 23.

8) Ball State men's basketball player dies at off-campus apartment

Zach Hollywood was found dead at his off-campus apartment in August. The death was ruled a suicide. He tweeted twice the morning he died. His final message read, "Be careful what you say to everyone because you don't know what kind of battles they are going through."

Kenley Ratliff, 2, died after she was bitten by a tick. (Photo submitted by family)
Kenley Ratliff, 2, died in June after she was bitten by a tick on a camping trip. (family photo used with permission)
7) Plainfield toddler killed by tick bite

Kenley Ratliff tested positive for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever after getting infected from a tick bite during a camping trip. The 2-year-old passed away in June. It's a rare, but real danger - more common in southern states, but also a risk in Indiana.

6) Woman drowns trying to save dog in Columbus

Jacquelyn Watts drowned in March while trying to save a dog that was older and had vision problems. An eyewitness saw her running alongside the river. The dog had been reported missing earlier. A friend told the media, "She cared deeply for the welfare of animals. If she believed she could help an animal in need, she was going to do so without hesitation. We know that Jackie gave her life for what she believed in. Oh, that we would all be filled with enough passion to give our lives for what we believed in."

5) 13 Investigates: Lafayette food poisoning

An enchilada, a burrito and a taco at Agave Azul turned out to be deadly for 66-year-old Alex Zdravich. What 13 Investigates discovered about the investigation into his death raised serious questions about how and when Hoosiers are warned about suspected cases of food poisoning. As health inspectors and the county coroner investigated a potential public health crisis, WTHR discovered it took nearly four months to test food samples suspected in the deadly outbreak.

Hoosiers were kept in the dark for nearly six months after restaurant patrons got sick from food poisoning – and the restaurant, Agave Azul, remained open despite lingering questions about what killed Mr. Zdravich and sickened others. Details about the case were released only after 13 Investigates asked pointed questions.

Local health officials say the case has shaken their confidence in state and federal agencies. The Zdravich family has filed a lawsuit.

4) Lt. Aaron Allan

Southport Police Lt. Aaron Allan, who was shot while investigating a car crash in July. Allan, 38, was responding to a report of a personal injury accident near Madison Avenue & Maynard Drive when one of the occupants of the crashed vehicle shot him. Prosecutors have filed notice they want to seek the death penalty against the suspect.

3) 13 Investigates: CBD oil

13 Investigates exposed an unannounced state crackdown on CBD oil, revealing how State Excise Police raided a Fresh Thyme Farmers Market near Greenwood on June 14, confiscating thousands of dollars in products containing CBD oil. WTHR’s reporting triggered an immediate investigation and review by the Governor’s office, Indiana State Police and Indiana’s attorney general.

CBD oil is produced from cannabis plants (the same plant commonly known as marijuana), but unlike marijuana, CBD oil comes from a type of cannabis that cannot make users high because it contains little or no THC. Thousands of Hoosiers use CBD oil to treat chronic pain and anxiety. After WTHR raised questions about the surprise crackdown, state officials admitted they weren't sure if it was legal or not. 13 Investigates traveled to Washington, D.C., where DEA officials told 13 Investigates they consider CBD oil to be illegal, but federal officials also said they have no plans to arrest anyone using it. Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill issued an advisory opinion saying any substance derived from the cannabis plant is illegal to possess in Indiana, regardless of how much THC it contains.

Gov. Holcomb ordered Excise Police not to confiscate any CBD products for 60 days - a grace period that lasts into January when state lawmakers can weigh in. At least three state senators have announced plans to introduce bills that would legalize CBD oil in Indiana.

2) Marsh declares bankruptcy

Marsh filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May, affecting 44 stores. Many were bought by Kroger, some were bought by Ohio-based Fresh Encounter, and a Beech Grove location was bought by Safeway.

1) Delphi Girls

Liberty German and Abigail Williams disappeared Feb. 13 while hiking along wooded trails outside Delphi. Their bodies were found Feb. 14. Police have released a sketch of the man suspected of killing them, and audio of his voice retrieved from Libby's phone. The case garnered national attention, including 6,000 billboards in 46 states plus segments on Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil, but the case is still unsolved. Send police your tips by calling (844) 459-5786 or emailing abbyandlibbytip@cacoshrf.com.

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