By SCOTT MCFETRIDGE
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
DES MOINES - The heartbreaking disappearance of two young cousins who set out for a summer bike ride and never returned has been voted the top Iowa news story of 2012.
A police car passes a sign Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, in Evansdale, Iowa, for cousins Lyric Cook, 10, and Elizabeth Collins, 8, who disappeared in July while riding their bikes at nearby Meyers Lake. Family members are waiting to hear whether the two bodies discovered by hunters on Wednesday are the two missing cousins.
Associated Press newspaper and broadcast members ranked the shocking disappearance of Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins the No. 1 story. It was one that began in mid-July when Lyric, then age 10, and Elizabeth, then age 8, went for a bike ride in the northeast Iowa town of Evansdale and ended in early December when their bodies were found in a wooded area about 25 miles away.
The deaths were crushing news to residents of Evansdale and adjacent cities of Waterloo and Cedar Falls, who closely followed a massive search for the girls.
Black Hawk County sheriff's Capt. Rick Abben appeared to fight back tears as he announced their bodies had been found.
Iowa Top Stories at a Glance
1. Missing Cousins
2. (tie) Iowa Caucuses
2. (tie) Drought
4. General Elecetion
5. Pink Slime
6. Gay Marraige
7 Peregrine Financial
8. UNI Cutbacks
10. (tie) Iowa Legislature
10. (tie) Xi Jinping
"It's definitely not the outcome that we wanted, obviously," Abben said.
Several reward funds have been established to prod information loose about who was responsible for the girls' deaths, but no arrests have been made.
There was a tie for the second-ranked story between Iowa's presidential caucuses and a drought that has persisted for months in the state and much of the region.
The caucuses always draw plenty of national attention, but this year they also drew criticism after then-party Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn declared Mitt Romney the winner by an 8-vote margin. Strawn expressed confidence that outcome wouldn't change, but two weeks later the certified vote gave the win to former Sen. Rick Santorum by 34 votes.
Some said the confusion cheated Santorum of the surge in support that candidates hope for after a caucus win, and Iowa Republican officials appointed a panel to recommend changes that could avert such mistakes.
In June the panel made several recommendations, including not immediately declaring a winner if the margin between the top two contenders is less than 1 percent.
The drought received most news coverage in the summer, as it caused crops to wither and led some cities to ask residents to reduce water use, but most of the state remains critically dry. A big December snowstorm should help a bit, but farmers and communities could face a difficult summer without higher-than-normal precipitation.
The fourth-ranked story was Iowa's general election, in which Democratic President Barack Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney by about 6 percentage points after an intense campaign in the battleground state that saw both candidates return repeatedly to woo voters. The election also ended the longtime congressional career of Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell, who lost to Republican Rep. Tom Latham in a campaign of incumbents who faced off after Iowa lost a congressional seat to redistricting.
Democrats retained control of the state Senate and Republicans kept their majority in the state House.
The controversy over a beef product dubbed "pink slime" was voted the fifth-ranked story.
Criticism of the product blew up after media reports and an outpouring of comments in social media. After sales plunged, South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc. closed plants in Iowa, Kansas and Texas, leaving about 750 people without jobs. The company has sued ABC News, claiming inaccurate reporting caused sales to decline. ABC has denied it knowingly disparaged BPI or its product and is fighting the suit.
Gay marriage was the sixth-ranked story, as those seeking to overturn Iowa's law dealt with two losses in November's election.
Voters opted to retain Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, although he had joined in the unanimous 2009 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage and faced a campaign for his removal by social conservative groups. The election also kept Democrats in control of the Iowa Senate, making it unlikely efforts to change the state constitution to ban gay marriage will proceed.
In seventh place was the case of Cedar Falls investment broker Russ Wasendorf Sr., who pleaded guilty to misusing $200 million in customer funds over a 20-year period. Wasendorf awaits sentencing.
Cutbacks at the University of Northern Iowa ranked eighth in the voting. The Cedar Falls school moved ahead with numerous reductions and elimination of programs despite protests by some students and faculty.
Questions about voting came in ninth. Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz has waged a high-profile effort to fight what he says is a serious problem of voter fraud, though many Democrats argue the Republican has created the issue to discourage voting by groups that typically favor Democrats. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad also has stood by rules he imposed that made it much more difficult for people to regain their voting status after being convicted of crimes.
The top stories list finished with a tie for 10th place between Branstad's inability to get education or tax reform plans through the Legislature and the visit to Iowa by Xi Jinping, then China's vice president who since has been named general secretary of the country's Communist Party.