SPOKANE, Wash. — This year, KREM reported on stories involving deaths at a Spokane jail, Spokane's homeless population and if the state is better off after privatizing liquor sales.
Local shops founds ways to try to get around a flavored-vaping ban, a former local firefighter won a Supreme Court case and the housing market surpassed Seattle.
These are the top 10 most viewed/watched KREM investigations in 2019.
1. Witness says inmate who died at Spokane jail screamed for an hour
Multiple people told investigators that Shane Carson, a 31-year-old man who died on June 13, 2018 in the Spokane County Jail, screamed for help for 15 minutes to an hour before his death.
In records obtained by KREM in a records request, investigators interviewed other inmates present at the time of Carson's death who said he showed several signs of illness and stress while detoxing for an hour in the Spokane County Jail.
Carson was booked into the jail the same day he died, according to records, after violating terms of his probation on a third-degree assault conviction. He showed signs of illness before his death, including profuse sweating, difficulty breathing and screaming for help, according to records.
Carson's cellmate at the time told investigators that he told guard that Carson needed help multiple times before his death, to which the cellmate claims guard responded to by saying that Carson was "just detoxing," according to the records.
Spokane County declined to comment for the story, citing an ongoing investigation into jail deaths. Carson's was the eighth since June 15, 2017, and at least two deaths have happened since Carson's.
2. Why Spokane's homeless population is more visible than ever
Spokane is continuing to boom, and there is no place where this is more evident than downtown, with businesses and restaurants popping up, revitalizing areas that used to be rundown.
But at the same time as the economic growth, Spokane's homeless population has continued to boom downtown.
“Within the last year it’s just getting worse and worse and worse. Yesterday I had people living out of my dumpster,” said longtime Spokane resident Rita Santillanes. “It’s just getting more dangerous.”
One of the reasons for the growth in the homeless population was the closing of the House of Charity 24/7 shelter, which housed about 300 homeless people each night. The shelter and the city announced earlier this year that by September, the shelter would not be open around the clock and would reduce its capacity of 150 people.
One of the other reasons the homeless population became more visible was the suspension of the city's sit-lie ordinance. A court case determined that a city cannot enforce a law banning people from sleeping in outdoor public spaces if the city isn't providing enough shelter beds for their homeless population.
3. Some Spokane vape shops sell flavoring separately. That's illegal too, state says
In November, the Washington State Board of Health implemented a ban on flavored vaping products amid an outbreak of vaping-related illnesses and deaths across the country.
The outbreak caused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a warning, stating that people should avoid vaping for the time being while the illnesses and deaths were investigated.
In an attempt to get around this statewide ban, as flavored-vaping juice was most vape shop's most popular product, some stores began selling unflavored nicotine vaping juice alongside a separate flavoring additive, allowing consumers to mix the two together themselves.
KREM was able to confirm that multiple shops in Spokane did this, and was able to buy the products from a local store.
However, the Washing Liquor Cannabis Board, which is in charge of enforcing vaping regulations, said this is still a violation of the ban.
But the LCB said stores violating the rules will not be punished the first time the LCB contacts them, as they instead want to educate owners on the new rules instead of handing out punishments. If a store continues to break the law, the could receive a fine or have their license suspended.
The flavored-vaping ban is scheduled to end on Feb. 7, 2020.
4. Spokane's housing market hotter than Seattle's for first time in six years
Across the country, the housing market is finally showing signs of slowing down.
But Spokane is bucking the trend, as the housing market is anything but slow.
Starting in November 2018, homes in Spokane were selling faster than in Seattle for the first time in six years.
At one point in Dec. 2018, the average home in Seattle sold in 72 days, while homes in Spokane were selling in 57 days. The United States average at the time was 83 days.
And while homes climbed 12 percent in price from 2017-2018, houses in Spokane are still cheaper than Seattle.
5. Spokane woman to down payment scammer: 'You cannot make your livelihood on the tears of other people'
A Spokane woman lost her life savings to scammer when she tried to put a down payment on her dream home.
Sandra Lee, a 75-year-old woman in Nine Mile Falls, had watched construction crews build her dream house.
She secured a loan for the $98,000 down payment, and when it came time to transfer the payment, she received instructions for a wire transfer that seemed to come from her escrow officer.
The next day, Lee's banker called her to make sure the down payment was ready, to which Lee said it was already sent. But she would find out from the banker that she had been scammed, and the wire transfer instructions weren't from her bank's escrow officer.
The letters looked legitimate, but Lee was out of her down payment.
While FBI agents would track down the scammer, who now faces charges, Lee eventually lost her dream house, as the payments became too steep without her down payment.
6. Former Spokane Valley firefighter who used work email for religious group wins Supreme Court case
A former Spokane Valley firefighter who was fired for using religious language on his government email account took his case to the Washington Supreme Court - and won.
John Sprague was a Spokane Valley firefighter for nearly 18 years before being fired due to emails for a Christian support group he was a part of with other firefighters in 2012.
He had used his work email to contact the other group members, prompting the fire department to tell him to stop. When he didn't, he was fired.
After fighting in court for more than six years, he won his case in front of the Washington Supreme Court, which he said made him feel vindicated.
Sprague received on a nearly $1 million payout and retirement benefits, but he said his life has never been the same since he was fired.
7. 'It's borderline criminal': Spokane couple gets $2.2K surprise medical bill
Even patients with health insurance can get hit with unexpected, expensive medical bills in Washington state.
Although state lawmakers passed a law closing a loophole to prevent surprised medical bills in 2019, it doesn't go into effect until 2020.
Monte and Kristy Jones received an unexpected bill after Monte had surgery on a bulging disk, even after they made sure before the procedure that insurance would cover the cost.
The catch? While the procedure was supposed to be covered as in-network care, the person that ended up doing anesthesia was out-of-network, despite the procedure being planned as all in-network.
Because of this, the Jones received a $2,250 medical bill. And they aren't the only ones to suffer from this type of surprise billing.
Statistically, 60 percent of people have seen this type of bill resulting from an out-of-network provider stepping in on an in-network procedure.
8. A Spokane veteran was evicted for no reason, and it's legal
The Spokane housing rental market is hot, with vacancy rates below two percent, and a study shows the price of one-bedroom apartments has jumped in recent years.
Some people who rent month-to-month have found themselves evicted with 20 days to find a new place to live. The evictions can come for no reason, and its perfectly legal in Washington.
Spokane renter and veteran Tim Leu has Idiopathic Sensory Motor Exonal Polyneuropathy, a sensory and motor disorder causing him to fall about three times a day. He will soon have to use a wheelchair, and his doctor at the VA wrote an order saying he needs a ground-floor apartment.
Leu made a request with his complex for a wheelchair ramp, and the same day the request was denied, he was evicted from his unit and given 20 days to leave.
Leu was given an extra 30 days to move after the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance notified the property managers he was disabled and allowed the extra time, but with Spokane's tough market, its hard to find a new place on short notice.
9. Private liquor in Washington state: Are we better off?
In 2011, voters decided to take the sale of liquor out of the state's hands and give it to private businesses.
Starting in 2012, state-run liquor stores shut down, and businesses with more than 10,000-square feet in floor space were allowed to sell hard alcohol. Business ran out of a building that was formerly a state liquor store could also sell liquor.
The competition of the private market was supposed to provide buyers with cheaper prices and more variety, but is this true?
In terms of price and tax revenue, the answer is no.
The average price of a bottle of liquor per liter has went up almost 20 percent since privatization, and this remains at just under 8 percent higher after taking inflation into account.
Tax revenue hasn't even recovered to recession year levels.
But when it comes to selection, it really depends on what a person is looking for and how far they're willing to go.
Big-box stores tend to have less of a selection than the state-run stores in Idaho, while a local family-owned store and a specialty alcohol store in Spokane had ad wider selection.
10. Former Spokane Co, sergeant had history of using racial slurs, report says
Documents from a Spokane County Sheriff's Office internal investigation detail the allegations that led to the firing of Sergeant Jeff Thurman, including the use of racial slurs and talking about killing minorities.
Thurman, who was well-known for being the handler of police K9 Laslo, was fired on June 13. Thurman later filed a tort claim seeking nearly $12.5 million in damages from Spokane County in response to his firing.
Thurman told investigators that he may have used racial slurs "jokingly" with colleagues.
He also was acussed of telling a female coworker who he attended a work training with that she may "come back pregnant."