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MICHAEL JACKSON DIES
When Michael Jackson died suddenly on June 25 at age 50, the world seemed to stop just long enough for fans to mourn, moonwalk and reminisce across generations of "Thriller" lovers. No doubt about it, the King of Pop left behind a rich legacy of musical greatness – but also a complex one, marked by increasingly erratic behavior. He also left behind three children – Blanket, 7; Paris, 11; and Prince Michael, 12 – looming legal battles and a stunning final act: the over $100 million-grossing film This Is It, featuring rehearsal shots from the sold-out comeback tour that never was.
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MIRACLE CRASH ON THE HUDSON
It could have ended tragically. But when US Airways flight 1549 to Charlotte, N.C., made an emergency landing in the Hudson River off midtown Manhattan on Jan. 15, all 155 people aboard escaped alive. Credit goes to "hero pilot" Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III for calmly gliding the plane into the water after geese knocked out both engines. "In hindsight," he told PEOPLE in February, "I think something remarkable did happen that day."
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CHRIS BROWN ASSAULTS RIHANNA
Rihanna and Chris Brown were supposed to perform at the Grammys on Feb. 8 – instead, Brown was charged with attacking his then-girlfriend on the eve of the show, and Rihanna dropped out of sight. Ultimately, Brown was forbidden from contacting his now ex-girlfriend for five years, received five years' probation and had to attend a domestic violence class. Months later, Rihanna broke her silence in Glamour, saying she was "stronger, wiser and more aware" – and ready to speak for battered women.
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JAYCEE DUGARD FOUND ALIVE
Nearly two decades after a sex offender abducted her as she walked to a school bus stop, Jaycee Lee Dugard, 29, was discovered in August living in a maze of lean-tos and tents in Phillip Garrido and wife Nancy's Antioch, Calif., back yard, where she also bore him two daughters, now 15 and 11. While the Garridos have pleaded not guilty to 29 charges – including rape and kidnapping – Dugard and her family have begun the healing process. "All of us are doing very well under the circumstances," her mom, Terry Probyn, said in a statement. "Miracles can happen."
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BALLOON BOY HOAX
When a silver balloon lifted off in Ft. Collins, Colo., on Oct. 15 reportedly carrying 6-year-old Falcon Heene, the quest to save him made for gripping live TV. But the real drama would come later: The boy, a son of a thrill-seeking reality show couple, was never onboard; he was in his family's attic. Parents Richard and Mayumi Heene initially said the incident wasn't a stunt, but after a federal investigation, Mayumi pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor – for false reporting to authorities. Then on Nov. 13, her husband pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant.
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LETTERMAN'S BLACKMAIL CONFESSION
On Oct. 1, David Letterman took a break from the humor for two startling, serious revelations: First, he was the victim of a $2 million extortion plot attempt and, second, he had sex with staff members. In the following days, a grand jury indicted CBS news producer Robert Joel "Joe" Halderman for extortion – and Letterman publicly apologized to his staff and wife Regina Lasko for his infidelities. While the legal matter is ongoing, there has been one positive outcome for Letterman: His ratings have not suffered at all.
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DAISY GETS COYOTE-NAPPED
It happened right before Jessica Simpson's eyes: A coyote snatched the little maltipoo she called Daisy, her beloved pet of five years, on Sept. 14. "My heart is broken," the singer Tweeted after the incident. With her maternal instinct kicking in, Simpson held out hope that Daisy would return safely – even offering a reward for her recovery. But after being inundated with false sightings, the singer eventually conceded that her pup was gone for good, Tweeting on Oct. 12, "Please respect her memory."
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MACKENZIE'S INCEST SECRET
Mackenzie Phillips dropped a bombshell this September in her tell-all book High on Arrival: that her father, musician John Phillips, raped her at 19 and engaged with her in a long-term incestuous relationship. "My father was not a man with boundaries," she wrote. "He was full of love, and he was sick with drugs." While some of his surviving family met her dark accusations with doubt, Phillips took her story to Oprah and the Today show, and had the support of half-sister Chynna. And people were listening: Calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline spiked 26 percent following her revelation.
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SARAH PALIN RESIGNS
"You can effect change from the outside, and I can, too," former Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin told a stunned nation on July 3 outside her Wasilla home as she announced she was resigning as Alaska's governor. Speculation pointed to a coming Senate run or scandal, but Palin clarified things days later, telling NBC News that ethics challenges and the scrutiny of the spotlight had impeded her day-to-day work. By November, she was back on the campaign trail – for her bestselling book, Going Rogue.
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MIAMI PRIEST IN LOVE
Known to many as Padre Alberto, dashing Roman Catholic priest and media personality Alberto Cutié found himself in a public crisis of faith after photos of him kissing a woman hit the press. Yanked from his radio and TV programs, Cutié grappled with leaving the church for Ruhama Buni Canellis, his longtime girlfriend. In the end, he went with his heart, but also kept his faith: Cutié joined the Episcopal Church and, on June 16, wed Canellis in a civil ceremony.
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S.C. GOVERNOR ADMITS AFFAIR
His staff said he was "hiking the Appalachian Trail," but South Carolina governor Mark Sanford was actually in Buenos Aires, where he was having an affair with a "dear, dear friend from Argentina." In a tearful press conference June 24, Sanford apologized to wife Jenny, his four sons and his staff for misleading them. In the fallout, he resigned as Chairman of the Republican Governors Association and his wife eventually filed for divorce – but he retained his elected post.
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TIGER'S FALL FROM GRACE
After a Thanksgiving night car accident, rumors swirled that golf great Tiger Woods had been fighting with wife Elin Nordegren – over allegations of cheating. In a statement on his Web site, Woods addressed the ordeal – sort of – writing, "I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart ... I am not without faults and I am far short of perfect." But the scandal was far from over, as the athlete was eventually linked to a dozen women, including porn star Holly Sampson and Tool Academy alum Jamiee Grubbs, who apologized for the affair.