- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - Gov. Chris Christie made headlines inside and outside of New Jersey in 2014, an incident inside of an elevator in Atlantic City led to the year’s biggest sports scandal, and the gambling industry in the resort town saw its epic struggles get worse.

Here are the highlights from the year that was in New Jersey:

-CHRISTIE’S ROLLER COASTER RIDE

Flying high after racking up huge re-election victory margins, Christie was seen as a front-runner for the Republican nomination if he decided to run for president in 2016.

But then came the revelation of an email that appeared to show one of his closest aides telling a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official to shut down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in an apparent act of political retribution.

Christie commissioned a taxpayer-funded review that concluded he and key staffers did nothing wrong. And lawmakers’ own investigation found no evidence of involvement by Christie, though it was impeded by a lack of access to key witnesses.

All eyes are now on the U.S. attorney’s office, which launched a federal criminal probe into the incident that’s not expected to wrap up until 2015.

Meanwhile, Christie worked tirelessly to move past the bridge scandal, using his position as chair of the Republican Governors Association to travel extensively across the country.

The group raised more than $100 million on Christie’s watch and a series of unexpected wins in the midterms vaulted Christie’s status, returning him to the likely-candidate heap.

Now the question for 2015: Will he go through with a White House bid?

-CRUMBLING ATLANTIC CITY:

Atlantic City saw its casino industry implode, the result of ever-increasing competition in the saturated northeastern U.S. casino market. It began the year with 12 casinos but will end it with eight.

The Atlantic Club was the first to close on Jan. 13, bought out of bankruptcy by two competitors, Caesars Entertainment and Tropicana Entertainment, which stripped it for parts.

The still-profitable Showboat was next on Aug. 31, closed by Caesars in the name of reducing competition for its three other Atlantic City casinos. The never-profitable Revel shut down on Sept. 2 after little more than two years, and Trump Plaza closed on Sept. 16. (The Trump Taj Mahal narrowly escaped closing when billionaire Carl Icahn pledged $20 million to keep it running through bankruptcy.)

Atlantic City’s woes inspired a series of state initiatives. Proposals include tax breaks for casinos, extra aid for the city, and a powerful state monitor to oversee operations.

-RAY RICE’S BAD YEAR:

Former Rutgers and Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice was arrested in Atlantic City along with his then-fiance in February, after an incident that his attorney described as “little more than a misunderstanding.”

Rice was placed into a pretrial intervention program rarely used in domestic violence cases, but videos released by TMZ showing him pulling Janae Rice out of an elevator at the Revel Casino Hotel - and then another showing him striking her - led to the Ravens releasing him and questions about both Atlantic County prosecutors’ and the NFL’s handling of the case.

Rice’s indefinite suspension was overturned in arbitration, but he remains unemployed.

-SAYREVILLE FOOTBALL SCANDAL:

It started with a cancelled football game and then a cancelled season, and mushroomed into a scandal that engulfed a middle-class town where the high school team’s success had helped take some of the sting out of devastating flooding from Superstorm Sandy two years earlier.

Seven players on the regional powerhouse Sayreville Bombers eventually were charged with crimes including aggravated sexual assault, criminal restraint and hazing, allegedly committed against younger team members.

The allegations ignited a debate over how to police hazing on sports teams, and it led to the suspensions of four assistant coaches, the school’s athletic director and longtime head coach George Najjar. The criminal cases against the players are ongoing in juvenile court.

-TRACY MORGAN:

A Wal-Mart tractor-trailer slammed into the back of a limousine van carrying Morgan and several others on the New Jersey Turnpike on the way back from a Delaware performance in June.

James McNair, a fellow comedian and mentor, was killed, and Morgan and two other companions suffered serious injuries. The accident shone a spotlight on the issue of driver fatigue after a criminal complaint alleged Wal-Mart driver Kevin Roper hadn’t slept in more than 24 hours before the crash.

Morgan’s attorney has said the former “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” star suffered a serious brain injury and may never be “the Tracy Morgan he once was.” Morgan and others filed a federal lawsuit against Wal-Mart over the crash, and Roper faces four criminal counts, including death by auto.

-OTHER HIGHLIGHTS FROM 2014:

-“Real Housewives of New Jersey” stars Teresa and Joe Giudice were convicted of fraud charges and sentenced to jail.

-High school senior Rachel Canning sued her parents for child support and college costs after she moved out. A judge denied her claims and she moved back in with her parents.

-At the height of the Ebola scare in the U.S. in November, New Jersey forcibly quarantined a Doctors Without Borders nurse at a hospital in Newark. Kaci Hickox came out swinging against Christie and was soon released to her home in Maine.

-Recovery continued as shore towns marked the second anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, while federal officials worked to address concerns from homeowners still struggling to rebuild.

-Rutgers student Darsh Patel, 22, was mauled to death by a bear while hiking with friends in northwest New Jersey. His death was the first known bear mauling in state history. Hunters killed 267 bears in December’s annual hunt.

- A gas leak and explosion destroyed at least 10 houses and damaged dozens of others at a Ewing town house development in March, killing a woman and injuring seven workers.

___

Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill, in Haddonfield, Wayne Parry, in Atlantic City, and Josh Cornfield, in Trenton, contributed to this story.

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