Two stories, one of pride and honor and one of tragedy and disbelief, led the top 10 news stories in Morrison County during 2012. The Record staff and 15 community leaders were asked to vote on the top 10 stories for the year.
For the most part, those top 10 stories included more bad news than good news — but the number one story was that of Little Falls native Brian Kobilka earning international acclaim for being awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
The community would make national news just more than a month later, when another Little Falls native, Byron Smith, was charged in the shooting deaths of teen cousins during an alleged burglary of his home Thanksgiving Day.
These two stories topped the list that included one other piece of good news — the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery received a $1.4 million grant for expansion.
Several of the stories were not particularly good news, including the closing of Home Savings of America Bank by FDIC regulators; a lawsuit over the Little Falls city sign ordinance; the temporary suspension of operations at the Central Minnesota Ethanol Co-op because of high corn prices and the failure of the marriage amendment to the Minnesota constitution, which had high support in Morrison County.
The remaining stories on the list were of residents being charged with murder, attempted murder and trying to pay someone to commit murder.
Following is a recap of the top 10 stories of 2012:
1) Little Falls native Brian Kobilka wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Described by childhood friends as an all-American kid, modest and intelligent, Little Falls native Dr. Brian Kobilka’s Nobel Prize put him right up there with Charles A. Lindbergh in the city’s history.
Kobilka is a medical doctor, professor and chair of molecular and cellular physiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California. He and his colleague, Robert Lefkowitz, 69, a professor at Duke University in North Carolina, learned Oct. 10, they had won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their work on G-protein-coupled receptors.
Childhood friends Dr. Tom Stoy, a family physician at the Family Medical Center, and John Nagel, a special education teacher in Little Falls, graduated in 1973 with Kobilka, and have kept in touch with him over the years.
The friends were not surprised by Kobilka’s success, but Stoy, who can beat Kobilka on the tennis court, said it would be hard to one-up his friend on this feat.
Stoy said he had to pinch himself when he learned that someone he’d known his whole life had won the Nobel Prize.
Nagel is looking forward to seeing Kobilka at their 40th class reunion in 2013.
Kobilka graduated from the University of Minnesota – Duluth (UMD) in 1977, with degrees in biology and chemistry, graduated in 1981 from Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn., and worked at Duke University with Lefkowitz before transferring to Stanford.
Kobilka’s parents, Frank and Betty, owned and operated the Sanitary Bakery in Little Falls, with a branch in Pierz. He has one sister, Pam Elconin who lives in the Metro area. Frank passed away eight years ago, but Betty lives with her daughter.
Kobilka, 57, and his wife, Tong Sun, who live in Palo Alto, Calif., have two grown children. They met while he was a freshman at UMD in 1973. She is also a doctor, an internist. She works at the clinic one day a week and the rest of the time works in the lab with him.
Kobilka is one of the just 160 people who have been awarded a Nobel Prize for Chemistry since 1901.
This research will aid in drug development, Kobilka said.
“What we’ve done is provide extra tools for pharmaceutical companies to develop safer and more effective drugs, and even if they were able to use those tools right now, it takes five to seven years to develop drugs,” he said.
2) Little Falls man charged with second degree murder for shooting alleged burglars at his home Thanksgiving Day
A double shooting in Little Falls captured state and national attention in late November.
Byron David Smith of Little Falls was charged with second-degree murder in the deaths of Haile Kifer and Nick Brady, when he shot them multiple times during an alleged burglary of his home Thanksgiving Day.
He was arrested the following afternoon, when a neighbor reported a possible shooting at Smith’s home. Smith had called the neighbor that morning to ask whether he knew of an attorney.
Officers found the dead teens in Smith’s basement with multiple gunshot wounds.
Smith gave authorities a taped recounting of the incident saying he first disabled Brady and shot him multiple times, then disabled Kifer in the same way, and again shot her multiple times. Law enforcement determined he had gone too far in protecting his property.
Area teens held a candlelight memorial vigil for Kifer and Brady at Little Falls Community High School the night before Smith’s first court appearance.
During Smith’s first court appearance Nov. 26, Morrison County Attorney Brian Middendorf asked that bail be set at $2 million bond or $200,000 cash with no conditions, or $1 million bond and $100,000 with conditions, for what he called the “cold-blooded murder of two teenagers” and “appalling” circumstances.
In a press conference, Sheriff Michel Wetzel said Minnesota law clearly states that people have the right to use force, even deadly force, to protect their property, but that the force must be reasonable.
“The law doesn’t permit you to execute somebody once the threat is gone and there is no possible way the crime can continue,” the sheriff said. “The law also requires that law enforcement be notified and that aid be rendered.” That didn’t happen in this case, he said.
Middendorf called the incident a “terrible tragedy” and admitted he had “never seen anything like this.”
Initially, Smith was represented by Attorney Greg Larson of Little Falls, but by the end of that week, Steve J. Meshbesher of Meshbesher and Associates, Minneapolis, had been hired to represent Smith.
In the days that followed, it was brought out that Smith’s home had been burglarized in October.
Evidence was found indicating that Kifer, 18, and Brady, 17, may have been involved in a burglary in southwest Little Falls the night before the shootings, where coins and prescription medication were stolen while the homeowner was out of town.
During a search warrant executed Nov. 29, surveillance video was discovered showing Brady and Kifer outside Smith’s home, mid-day Thanksgiving Day. A digital audio recorder containing audio of the shooting was also found.
On Dec. 1, a joint funeral service was held for Kifer and Brady.
Meshbesher requested during Smith’s Dec. 17 hearing that bail be reduced to $200,000 bond ($20,000 cash) without conditions or $100,000 bond ($10,000 cash) with conditions, “a reasonable amount,” he said.
Assistant Morrison County Attorney Todd Kosovich argued bail should be doubled. “This was an ambush and murder,” said Kosovich, as he recounted what he had heard on the audio recording of the shootings.
Judge Douglas P. Anderson granted the request to lower bail with conditions to $500,000 bond or $50,000 cash, but ordered bail without conditions remain at $2 million or $200,000 cash.
On Dec. 18, Smith was released on $50,000 bail.
On New Year’s Eve, Middendorf announced Washington County Attorney Pete Orput would prosecute the Smith case with Kosovich.
An omnibus hearing for the case has been set for Tuesday, Jan. 22.
3) Home Savings of America Bank closed by FDIC regulators
The closing of Home Savings of America took the community by surprise when its doors were closed Feb. 24, 2012.
Local residents seeing the initial hubbub thought the bank was under new ownership, as had happened several times since the former Community Federal Savings and Loan had first been sold.
They soon learned that was not the case, as 75 Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) employees and 20 Minnesota State Troopers swarmed the bank lobby to announce the FDIC had taken over the bank. The State Troopers were contacted to secure the building.
Bank employees were detained for clearance before they could leave that Friday, business payroll checks failed, customers’ bank cards were declined and those with safety deposit boxes were called to come and clear them out.
An explanation by the Comptroller of the Currency (COC) said that Home Savings of America failed because of “substantial dissipation of assets and earnings due to unsafe or unsound practices.”
Home Savings had also “incurred losses that depleted its capital, was critically undercapitalized, and there is no reasonable prospect that the institution will become adequately capitalized without federal assistance.”
Because a buyer could not be found, the COC closed the bank and asked the FDIC to serve as receiver and to pay off depositors.
Ray Rudnicki, FDIC senior ombudsman specialist, said 12,000 checks were sent to depositors from Dallas the following Monday morning.
The FDIC insures deposits up to $250,000 on interest-bearing accounts. Rudnicki said that possibly 30 accounts total from all four Home Savings branches (Little Falls and three in California) were above the insured limit.
Area banks found themselves swarmed as well, as customers hurried to open new accounts.
US Bank was chosen to receive Social Security and other government deposits for those people who were receiving them at Home Savings.
Greg Hernandez of the Office of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., said the FDIC routinely investigates why a bank was closed and that investigations on average take about 18 months to complete.
If a potential lawsuit is cost-effective and has merit, he said, the FDIC would file a civil lawsuit against the directors and officers of the bank who may have played a role in the failure.
4) Robin Hensel, leader of Occupy Morrison County movement, forces removal of “We Support Our Troops” sign on Bank Square and takes aim at city’s sign ordinance
Robin Hensel agreed with what the Occupy Wall Street movement stood for when it started in fall 2011, and brought the movement to her home in Southeast Little Falls. “I’m occupying my front space,” she said at the time.
After the city received complaints about the brightly-colored signs, Hensel was asked to remove the signs that violated city ordinance. She complied and put the majority of the signs on her van.
Hensel said the ordinance limited her right to free speech.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January 2012, a group with Hensel in the lead, gathered holding signs in a peaceful “Occupy the Dream” demonstration on Bank Square in Little Falls.
It was during that demonstration that Hensel noticed the “We Support Our Troops” banner on the former American National Bank building on Bank Square. She questioned whether it was in conformance with the city’s sign ordinance.
With no permit, the banner that had hung there for 10 years, was not in compliance with the city’s sign ordinance. Hensel asked that it be removed to apply the city’s ordinance equally without discrimination.
After garnering media attention, Hensel received threats, and the City Council began in earnest to update its sign ordinance.
In May, Attorney Larry A. Frost, filed a lawsuit in federal court on Hensel’s behalf against the city of Little Falls, Co-City Administrators Lori Kasella and Jerry Lochner, Police Chief Greg Schirmers, and 12 “John Does,” for allegedly violating her Constitutional rights to free speech, among other reasons, such as denying her access to city parks for an overnight demonstration, although access was granted to others.
He said the city had no excuse for wrongfully harassing Hensel, a 58-year-old grandmother, because she colorfully expressed an unpopular viewpoint on her own property.
Frost enlisted the aid of Bruce Fein of Bruce Fein and Associates Inc. in Washington, D.C., an attorney Frost has worked with on other cases involving constitution law.
After 10 drafts, the city finalized an updated version of its sign ordinance in July, limited the number of signs and square footage, but not the content of the signs.
The first sign taken down was the “We Support Our Troops” banner on Bank Square. It was restored to its place in September after a city permit was issued.
In the meantime, Hensel filed to run for City Council in Ward 1 against incumbent Loren Boyum. After attending nearly every city meeting, Hensel said she could not “in good conscience” not run.
She garnered 213 votes, behind candidate Brent Wittwer’s 293 and Boyum’s 630 votes.
On Nov. 19, Hensel was once again sent an “Unauthorized Sign Notice” by the city. She was given 10 working days to remove signs in her yard or risk being subjected to city code which states a violation could result in a misdemeanor. On Dec. 14, a second notice was sent by certified mail, giving Hensel another five working days to comply.
A misdemeanor is punishable by up to 90 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
Thursday, Hensel’s yard signs were covered in white paper, with the exception of one square which read, “Limited Free Speech Again.”
A date for Hensel’s lawsuit has not yet been set, nor has any settlement in the suit been reached.
5) Pierz man arrested for attempting to murder his wife
Kevin Stuckmayer of Pierz was charged in October with attempted premeditated murder in the first degree and first degree assault, after he allegedly admitted to officers he tried to kill his wife in September.
Stuckmayer’s wife, Natalie, reported the September incident in October, after she confronted him about an affair. She said he admitted he was having an affair and had hit her on the head with a board, trying to kill her.
At the time, when Stuckmayer allegedly asked his wife to pick up some bolts and hit her in the head with a board knocking her out, he acted as though he were calling for help.
Stuckmayer left his wife lay there while he went into their home to pretend to call 911. She told authorities she lay there for 40 minutes, before she managed to get to a phone and started to dial numbers.
Stuckmayer told doctors his wife had been hit in the head by a falling board.
According to the criminal complaint, the deputy talked to several witnesses who said Stuckmayer had told them about the plan to kill his wife.
Stuckmayer, 42, pleaded guilty to one count of attempted first degree murder at his pretrial hearing Dec. 13, 2012. One count of first degree assault was dismissed.
Defense attorney Douglas Sauter told Judge Douglas Anderson that a plea agreement had been reached and a cap of 90 months in prison was accepted by both the defense and the prosecution.
The date of sentencing has been scheduled for Friday, Feb. 1, at 1 p.m.
6) Marriage amendment fails in Minnesota, but favored by 68 percent of Morrison County voters
Minnesotans rejected two amendments the Republican-controlled Legislature placed on the ballot — the Voter Photo ID amendment and the Marriage Amendment.
The high-profile Marriage Amendment aimed at defining marriage in the state constitution as union of one man and one woman fell short with 47.44 percent of the vote.
While the state as a whole voted down the amendment, 68 percent of the voters in Morrison County showed support — 11,424 voted yes in the 48 precincts, 5,228 voted no and just 185 left the question blank.
With the failure of the Marriage Amendment, Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Cass County, predicted, “I think you can expect gay marriage to pass,” said Gazelka, although not right away.
“I would be surprised if it’s not addressed, when some of their (DFL) seasoned leadership has talked about it as far back as 2010,” Gazelka said.
As Democrats won control of the Minnesota House and Senate, Gazelka said the night of the election, “I got a good night’s sleep and woke up to a different political country — both in Minnesota and across the nation.”
Gazelka served Morrison County as its senator in District 12 and after redistricting, elected him to serve them in the new District 9. District 9 includes just more than 79,000 residents and encompasses most of Morrison County and Todd County and portions of Cass and Wadena counties.
7) Pierz woman charged for trying to hire the murder of ex-husband
A Pierz woman was arrested and charged with first degree, premeditated felony conspiracy to commit murder, after she allegedly tried to hire someone to kill her ex-husband for $200.
Nancy Leona Meyer, 43, was arrested April 12, after a woman reported to the Morrison County Sheriff’s Office that Meyer had been texting her asking for help in killing her ex-husband, Jeff Fisk, and sent a text with his Morrison County address.
The woman placed a phone call to Meyer while an investigator recorded the call. She asked Meyer how much pay was involved if she were to “go through with the plot,” the criminal complaint said.
While being recorded, Meyer allegedly told the woman she could start with $200, but did not want her kids involved. She told the person the location of her ex-husband’s bedroom and asked that the murder be committed on Sunday with a gun outfitted with a silencer used as the weapon.
Meyer also agreed to provide a description of her ex-husband and asked for a phone call confirming her ex-husband’s death.
After the recorded phone call, officers were ordered to arrest Meyer at her place of employment and her cell phone was seized.
At the Morrison County Jail, Meyer declined to give a formal statement, but allegedly told the officer if her ex-husband “allows me to see my frickin’ children, none of this woulda happened.” Meyer’s children are both adults.
Bail was set April 13, at $200,000 bond/$20,000 cash with no conditions or $100,000/$10,000 cash with conditions. Meyer remains in the Morrison County Jail.
No court dates have been set for Meyer as she is undergoing a Rule 20 evaluation, to determine whether she is competent to proceed.
8) Four charged after Little Falls woman dies of heroin overdose
It took more than six months after the Feb. 28 death of Little Falls resident Miranda Gosiak to charge four people in her death, caused by a heroin overdose.
In October, Keon Malone Mangun, 29, Minneapolis, was charged with three counts of third degree murder in the 19-year-old Gosiak’s death.
Three others were also charged in Gosiak’s death.
Little Falls men Brandon Clarence Bedford, 25, and Christian Carl Dahn, 31, were charged with third degree sale of a controlled substance, third degree possession of a controlled substance, third degree sale of a controlled substance with liability for the crimes of another person and third degree conspiracy to sell a controlled substance.
A fourth person, Tanya Irene Ashby, 37, Little Falls, was charged with aiding and abetting third degree murder and third degree possession of a controlled substance and with one gross misdemeanor count of owning or operating a disorderly house.
When Little Falls Police officers were dispatched to investigate a report of a non-responsive female, later identified as Gosiak, paramedics were unable to revive her and she was pronounced dead at the scene.
An autopsy later confirmed that Gosiak died of heroin toxicity.
The criminal complaint said Ashby, Bedford and Dahn visited the Twin Cities and pooled their money to purchase heroin from Mangun, Feb. 27.
Dahn allegedly purchased the heroin and gave a little to everyone.
Upon their return to Little Falls, Gosiak visited Ashby’s home where Bedford rents the upstairs. Ashby lived downstairs with Dahn, her boyfriend. Ashby allegedly told investigators she couldn’t watch Gosiak do heroin since Gosiak had just returned from drug treatment.
Ashby said she saw Gosiak the next morning, then again after she returned from doing errands but later said Bedford came downstairs and said he should not have given Gosiak that last line and sold Ashby his remaining heroin for $20.
Bedford returned upstairs and allegedly began yelling for help, saying something was wrong with Gosiak. They called 911 and said they began performing CPR until officers arrived.
In November, Judge Conrad Freeberg set bail at $750,000 unconditional bond or cash, $400,000 conditional bond or $40,000 cash for Mangun. His next court appearance is set for Feb. 13, at 2 p.m.
The next court appearances for the other three charged are Ashby, Monday, Jan. 14; Dahn, Friday, Feb. 1 and Bedford, Monday, Feb. 25.
9) Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery awarded $1.4 million grant for expansion
Dignitaries from Washington, D.C., traveled to Little Falls in October 2012, bearing a substantial gift for the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery — a check for $1.4 million (and change).
David Swantek, director of the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery and Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, Larry Shellito, welcomed the visitors from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Making the trip were Under Secretary of Memorial Affairs, Steve Muro; Director, Veterans Cemetery Grants Service, Joshua de Leon and Deputy Commissioner of Programs and Services, Reggie Worlds.
Swantek, director of the cemetery since 1996, just two years after it opened in 1994, applied for the grant for federal assistance in August 2012. In early September 2012, Shellito was notified of the grant award.
Shellito called the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls “a national model” and credited Swantek for the partnership with the United States Department of Veterans Administration.
The funds will be used to construct 1,240 crypts, 347 standard burial gravesites and 737 in-ground cremains gravesites, landscaping and supporting infrastructure on three undeveloped acres at the cemetery.
Once the project is completed in 2013, the cemetery should be able to accommodate veterans and their spouses for the next 10 years.
10) High corn prices cause Central Minnesota Ethanol Co-op to suspend operations
Influenced in part by the high price of corn and the low availability of corn locally, the Central Minnesota Ethanol Co-op in Little Falls temporarily suspended operations in July.
Ethanol Co-op Chief Financial Officer Larry Novakowske said the temporary suspension was due to the “crush margin,” which is the relationship of the price of corn to the price of ethanol and other by-products manufactured by the plant, plus all the other costs of operations.
Ethanol Co-op Board President Steve Anderson said the crush margin hadn’t been good to the industry nationally since January. As the Board watched the situation closely and with corn difficult to get in this area, it decided to suspend operations until the new crop came in.
Co-op shareholder and corn producer Darrell Larsen, who farms between Bowlus and Elmdale, was notified that co-op operations were being suspended. He was concerned that because of the drought across the Corn Belt, the scarcity of corn could affect the co-op’s infrastructure.
He said corn producers are always looking for better prices, but that they are so out of balance at the time, that they are also making it difficult for livestock producers.
While ethanol plant operations were suspended, the wastewater pretreatment facility next to the co-op was refurbished in early September and finished in time for the plant to begin operations again Sept. 17, 2012.