News continued to break throughout the 1990s in the Wyoming Valley. The decade’s top stories included a murder investigation that drew national attention, the construction of a controversial arena and convention center, the creation of a conservancy dedicated to reclaiming land scarred by mining, and a weather double-whammy of a blizzard followed by flooding.
Robert Curley murder
A mysterious murder case which took years to solve attracted national attention to Luzerne County in the 1990s. Solving the case involved the use of what at the time were cutting-edge techniques in forensic science.
Robert Curley, an electrician known to his friends as “Bobby,” died on Sept. 27, 1991, following an excruciating and mysterious illness. He was just 32.
Following an autopsy, his cause of death was ruled to be poisoning by thallium, a colorless, odorless and tasteless poison, once used in pest control to kill rats.
Authorities at first suspected that Curley, who lived with his wife Joann in the Miners Mills section of Wilkes-Barre, might have been accidentally poisoned at work at Wilkes University near a laboratory where thallium was used.
However, Robert Curley’s death was declared a homicide in December 1991 and a criminal investigation was launched. It lasted five years.
Police ultimately determined that Joann Curley poisoned Robert Curley by slipping thallium in his drinks during their 13-month marriage. She administered the last, large dose to her husband as he lay dying in a hospital bed at Hershey Medical Center.
New evidence collected at a second autopsy, after Robert Curley’s remains were exhumed in 1994, pointed to his wife as his possible killer.
Through the use of what was then a breakthrough forensic testing method, which used hair and fingernail samples to determine when toxins were first introduced into a person’s system, investigators determined Robert Curley had been slowly poisoned over the course of 11 months.
Police arrested Joann Curley for her husband’s murder in December 1996.
She confessed to killing Robert Curley during an interview with prosecutors in 1997. She said she wanted money from his life insurance policy.
Joann Curley pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and received the maximum sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison.
She became eligible for parole in 2006. Robert Curley’s family members beseeched the state parole board to keep her in prison. They also lobbied state lawmakers to pass legislation that permits family members of victims to testify in person before a parole board.
Joann Curley served her full 20-year sentence in prison. She was released in December 2016.
Earth Conservancy created
The nonprofit Earth Conservancy was founded in 1992 “to address the impacts of past coal-mining operations in Luzerne County,” according to the organization’s website.
Then-U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski helped to form the conservancy and to obtain millions of dollars in federal grants to fund its proposed projects.
Kanjorski helped to facilitate the sale of about 16,000 acres of mostly mine-scarred land owned by the defunct Blue Coal Co. to the conservancy, according to newspaper reports.
That sale hinged on legal and financial issues surrounding Blue Coal’s bankruptcy and the conservancy’s struggles to obtain a credit line, but it eventually was completed in 1994.
The creation of Earth Conservancy proved controversial with some wary residents of the region, according to letters received by The Citizens’ Voice at the time. Those letters expressed concerns over potential impacts on the environment and economic development efforts, as well as alleged secrecy in forming the conservancy.
Earth Conservancy continues its mission to this day. It recently sold tracts in Hanover Twp. and Nanticoke to Missouri-based NorthPoint Development, which plans to build commercial complexes containing large warehouses that the company says will create thousands of jobs.
Arena construction, opening
As of 2018, Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza is one of the leading entertainment and meeting space venues of its size in the nation. It hosts professional hockey, circus performances, ice shows, graduation ceremonies, conventions and concerts by well-known artists.
But whether or not to build the multi-purpose arena, in a former strip-mining tract in what was then the Highland Business Park in Wilkes-Barre Twp., was a hot and divisive topic in Luzerne County in the 1990s.
A county-wide voter referendum on a proposed construction loan for the arena project failed by just 48 votes in 1995. The referendum divided the county into two camps: Arena YES and Taxes NO.
The project received a big boost when then-Gov. Bob Casey Sr. awarded a $19.2 million grant to fund construction of the arena.
Construction began in September 1997 and the arena opened in November 1999.
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins hockey team, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins, has played its home games at the arena since it opened.
The arena has undergone several name changes, based on naming rights agreements. It opened as Northeastern Pennsylvania Civic Arena and Convention Center. It was later known as First Union Arena, then as Wachovia Arena.
In 2010 it became Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza. Mohegan Sun recently reached agreement to retain naming rights through 2029.
Blizzard, flood of January 1996
A blizzard blew through much of the northeastern United States, including Luzerne County, on Jan. 7-8, 1996.
More than 2 feet of snow fell on the upper elevations of the county. Then-Gov. Tom Ridge declared a state of emergency and banned travel on all roadways in the state. Schools were closed for much of the following week, as were many businesses.
Then came the flooding and the evacuation.
A week after the blizzard, another, smaller snowstorm impacted the region. In the days after that, unseasonably warm weather arrived. Then it rained. That caused rapid snow-melt, which led to flooding along streams, creeks and the Susquehanna River.
The river reached 34.45 feet at the Wilkes-Barre gauge on Jan. 20, 1996. At the time, that was the third-highest water level ever recorded at Wilkes-Barre.
Emergency management officials ordered residents of areas near the river to evacuate, amidst fears that a repeat of the devastating Flood of 1972 was possible.
Those fears proved unfounded, as the river receded before it spilled over the tops of the levee system along the riverbank. However, flood damage was reported in low-lying areas near the river, such as Plymouth Twp. and Shickshinny.
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