By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
Half of the top 10 stories for 2013 have their roots in stories that made the top 10 for 2012, including charges of murder, the passage of same-sex marriage legislation, a Little Falls resident’s fight with City Hall and the fate of the Central Minnesota Ethanol Co-op.
While the top four stories held their spots by a wide margin, votes for the remainder were tightly bunched. Forty stories — the most since the Record starting recapping the top 10 stories of the year — received votes, with 25 of those garnering votes from more than one person.
Four stories ended in a tie — two for sixth and seventh and two for eighth and ninth place.
Staff at the Morrison County Record and 15 leaders in the community were asked to pick from 48 listed stories.
Following is a recap of the top 10 stories of 2013:
1 — Byron David Smith indicted on first-degree murder charges
In April, a grand jury indicted Byron David Smith on two counts of first-degree, premeditated murder.
Smith, now 65, made national news when he was originally charged with two counts of second-degree murder after he shot and killed cousins Nick Brady, 17, and Haile Kifer, 18, during an alleged burglary at his Little Falls home on Thanksgiving Day 2012. Law enforcement was not notified until the following day.
Smith was released on $50,000 conditional bail in mid-December 2012.
In early August, the defense asked the court to dismiss the first degree murder charges with prejudice. They cited the lack of probable cause, several individual and cumulative errors in the grand jury process, rule and statutory violations, violations of Smith’s state and federal constitutional rights and for prosecutorial misconduct, as reasons for the dismissal.
Later that month, prosecutors Special Morrison County Assistant Attorneys Peter Orput and Brent Warner were granted their motion to consolidate the initial second-degree murder charges with the first-degree premeditated murder charges against Byron Smith. They also asked that all exhibits attached to the defendant’s and state’s omnibus hearing motions be sealed.
During a contested omnibus hearing at the end of August, Smith’s attorneys Steve Meshbesher and Adam Johnson, questioned law enforcement about their actions the day Smith was arrested and questioned staff from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension about handling of evidence.
In November, a year after the incident, Morrison County Judge Douglas Anderson denied the defense’s motion to dismiss first-degree murder charges against Smith.
Meshbesher filed a petition Dec. 5, asking for a discretionary review of the denial to dismiss the first-degree murder charges, by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
During a Dec. 13 hearing, Judge Anderson denied a defense request to stay further proceedings in the case, pending a decision by the State Court of Appeals.
Orput asked that no delay be allowed, but that the issue be addressed should the appellate court decide to review the case.
“Keeping this case moving is terribly important to the family and to the community,” Orput said.
The next step in the case, a plea hearing, has been set for Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, at 11 a.m.
2 — Minneapolis drug dealer convicted in LF woman’s heroin death
In what Assistant Morrison County Attorney Todd Kosovich called “a major victory in the war on heroin,” a Morrison County District Court jury found Keon “Bird” Mangun of Minneapolis guilty on the sole count of third-degree murder, Oct. 30.
Mangun, 30, sold the heroin that led to the overdose death of 19-year-old Miranda Gosiak of Little Falls.
Little Falls residents Brandon Bedford and Christian Dahn purchased the heroin from Mangun in North Minneapolis Feb. 27, 2012. During that evening and the next day, Bedford allegedly provided that heroin to Gosiak, who died of an overdose Feb. 28, 2012, in a Little Falls home, owned by Tanya Ashby.
Gosiak had just completed inpatient treatment Feb. 1, 2012. She had been taking her mother’s prescription medication and later began using heroin, her family testified.
In the case, where prosecutors went after the heroin dealer, County Attorney Brian Middendorf said, “I hope this case sends a message. Heroin users and dealers in Morrison County now know that this office will go after them for murder when there is an overdose.”
Little Falls Police Sgt. Chuck Strack, the first law enforcement officer on the scene, called the verdict a “precedent-setter.” He said it had “unbelievable importance throughout the state in rural communities.”
Mangun has been held in the Morrison County Jail since the verdict. His sentencing hearing is set to take place Monday, Dec. 30. Sentencing guidelines call for a prison sentence of nearly 12 years (134 months).
The charge of third-degree murder against Christian Dahn and Ashby were dismissed. Each pleaded guilty to controlled substance crimes and cooperated with the investigation.
Bedford disappeared prior to his Sept. 9, 2012 jury trial and a warrant was issued for his arrest on third-degree murder charges. He was found and arrested in early December of this year. A pre-trial hearing for Bedford has been set for Jan. 15, 2014, at 1 p.m.
3 — Legislature legalizes same-sex marriage statewide
Minnesota made history May 14, when Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law legislation legalizing same-sex marriage.
After months of debate, the legislation, which went into effect Aug. 1, made Minnesota the 12th state to legalize same-sex marriage.
In the November 2012 General Election, more than 50 percent of Minnesota voters rejected a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. In Morrison County, the Marriage Amendment passed with 67.85 percent of the 16,836 votes cast – 11,424 were cast for the marriage amendment; 5,228 against and 184 were left blank.
After the amendment failed, Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Cass County, who represents District 9 and was a strong proponent of the Marriage Amendment, predicted that same-sex marriage legislation would pass in the Democrat-controlled legislature.
4 — Gasoline prices reach $4.29 in May
Morrison County residents were shocked to drive past local gas stations in mid-May and see prices above $4 per gallon. The night before prices hovered near $3.87.
Upsala resident Henry Kuechle calculated it would cost him $70 each week at that price, as he commutes 31 miles to work.
Paul Ripperton of Little Falls was shocked. “It hurts; I didn’t figure it would go up that much,” he said.
Leanne Wolbeck, another Little Falls resident at the pumps that day, said she had already been at a point trying to find places to cut back. “This new increase may mean some serious changes,” she said.
Gas prices slowly came down over the summer, and in late fall and early winter hit lows of $2.84 per gallon in some local areas. As of Thursday, gas pumps showed $3.19 per gallon.
5 — About 300 at Camp Ripley furloughed by federal shutdown
As a result of the Federal Government shutdown Oct. 1, almost 350,000 federal workers were furloughed. Numbered among them were about 350 technicians at Camp Ripley.
A week later, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the furloughed federal workers back on the job, after the U.S. Departments of Defense and Justice offered their interpretation of the “Pay Our Military Act.”
The technicians at Camp Ripley are civilians, but wear the uniform when they work. Most were veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public affairs department at Camp Ripley noted.
6-7 — Police escort Robin Hensel from Little Falls Council meeting
Two stories tied for places 6-7. The first, Little Falls resident Robin Hensel being escorted out of a specially-called Little Falls City Council meeting by law enforcement and issued a citation for disorderly conduct.
Hensel had moved an audience chair to the middle of the floor closer to the Council and refused to move it back to the audience section of the Chambers when asked repeatedly to do so.
The Friday, June 7, meeting was called after the regular meeting Monday, June 3, was opened and adjourned within a minute, following a scene that took place between the work session and the regular meeting.
Hensel, who is currently suing the city for prohibiting her right to free speech in making her remove signs in her yard, had placed two signs in the Council Chambers. After the work session and before the regular meeting began, she also put on an outfit she said she had from the 1970s. She wore a hat with a sign on it as well.
Mayor Cathy VanRisseg-hem said she did not see what the signs said, but noticed a “ruckus” before the Council’s regular meeting began.
The “ruckus” began with a sign Hensel brought. She erected the sign so the side reading, “Free Speech Restricted Here” faced the audience. On the side facing the Council and city staff, the sign had photos of babies with birth defects.
Citizens in the crowd said the sign was “offensive” and claimed they couldn’t see past the sign. The Council invited those in the audience who wanted to move, to sit at the tables set up for the work session in the middle of Council Chambers.
One of the citizens bumped into the sign and moved it.
The mayor said she heard the people in the crowd, saw them raising their hand because they couldn’t see and when the sign was moved, Hensel became upset.
VanRisseghem felt the situation was getting out of control and once the meeting was called to order, moved to continue it at a later date.
Hensel said she hadn’t disrupted the Monday Council meeting, didn’t feel the meeting should have been adjourned and that during the Friday meeting, she simply chose to sit where the other residents, including the mayor’s husband, had been invited to sit.
A decision on Hensel’s lawsuit against the city is pending. Federal Court Judge Richard Kyle was to hear oral arguments in Duluth Dec. 10. That date was changed to Dec. 17, to be heard in St. Paul.
However, after considering the matter, Kyle cancelled the hearing for cross-motions for summary judgment, Dec. 12.
Paul Reuvers, the attorney representing the city, said this may mean a decision on the lawsuit will be reached fairly soon.
6-7 — Boys and Girls Club purchases former grocery store
In August, the Boys and Girls Club of Morrison County, now housed in the former Simonet Funeral Home in east Little Falls, announced it had purchased the former IGA building in west Little Falls. The building once housed a Red Owl Store, Schaffer’s Foods and Green’s Super Valu.
The Club, having grown to more than 550 members in the four short years it’s been open, will use just 6,000 on the west end of the 15,000 square feet of the building — 3,600 more than the 2,400 square feet in the current building — and have room to expand.
The remaining 9,000 square feet on the east end will be utilized for a thrift store in partnership with Habitat for Humanity. Funds from the sale of the goods will benefit both organizations.
The project cost is estimated at $1 million, with more than $700,000 already raised or pledged.
The roof has already been replaced and the inside was gutted by volunteers over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Throughout the winter, contractor Ken Santala of Little Falls, will work with crews, even volunteers, to work on the inside of the building, designed by architect Kevin Anderson.
The new space will include a secured entrance and area for kids’ belongings, a computer lab and study area, an arts area, a kitchen, an area just for teens, as well as a recreation area for all kids.
A dream for the future is an outdoor recreation area for games, like volleyball.
The purpose of the Boys and Girls Club, open to kids ages 6 – 18 for a $10 yearly membership fee, is for kids to have a safe, positive place to make new friends, have fun and learn.
The plan is to have the new space open for operation by June 2014.
For more information about volunteering or offering help, call Bernie Jeub at (320) 249-5632.
8-9 — Gun shops see sales surge as citizens fear more gun control
On the heels of the November 2012 General Election and the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, talk of legislation for gun control and the amount of ammunition that could be purchased, spurred area residents into buying firearms and ammunition.
Sporting goods dealers were finding it hard to keep guns and ammunition in stock. Tyrone Umlauf, owner of Shooting Sports in Little Falls, said in the 25 years he’d been in business, he had never been so busy. In December 2012, he showed record sales of auto-loading guns and handguns, also known as “semi-automatic” weapons.
“About four or five days after the Connecticut shooting, the mass buying began,” Umlauf said. “It doubled and tripled. Not because of the shooting, but because of the talk about gun control.”
Paulette Pappenfus, owner of Pap’s Sporting Goods in Little Falls, had the same experience with the sale of guns and especially with ammunition. Sales tripled and warehouses were unable to fill orders for ammunition, she said.
Iron Hills Gun and Pawn Shop owner Chet Nelson said demand increased 25 percent at his shop in Little Falls. While the shop doesn’t carry ammunition, Nelson said people were buying AR-15s, auto-loading handguns and guns with the capability of holding high capacity magazines.
Chad Kleinschmidt, who runs a business which offers classes for those wanting a permit to carry, said his phone began ringing off the hook with requests for those classes.
Morrison County Sheriff Chief Deputy Tom Ploof said people were “definitely hitting the panic button” and that applications for permits to carry a gun were becoming a big part of the Sheriff’s Office day.
The gun control legislation didn’t come through as some had feared. Umlauf said sales of guns and ammunition gradually slowed down throughout the year. “We’re still at high levels of sale, but not at the levels we were before,” he said.
8-9 — Ethanol plant resumes operations, then sold to Ohio firm
The Central Minnesota Ethanol Cooperative (CMEC) made the 2012 top 10 stories when high corn prices forced it to suspend operations temporarily.
This year, it makes the top 10 for selling to Green Biologics Inc., based out of the United Kingdom and Gahanna, Ohio, in the U.S.
Green Biologics is a technology developer and emerging bio-based chemicals producer, specializing in the renewable n-butanol, or normal butanol, industry.
CMEC had been seeking strategic alternatives for the plant for a year before signing the agreement with Green Biologics.
CMEC Chief Executive Officer Dana Persson called the sale “an exciting move for all of the stakeholders, shareholders, employees and the community at large. They have an exciting business plan.”
Joel Stone, president of Green Biologics said CMEC provided a perfect fit for the company to achieve its objective of being a leader in renewable chemicals, as opposed to those that are fossil and petroleum based
Plans are to upgrade the plant to the platform desired to produce n-butanol. Butanol and its derivatives are used in the production of paints, coatings and adhesives, an $85 billion global market.
It is the first normal butanol fermentation plant in North America since the 1950s. The production of butanol will keep corn growers in the area happy, said Stone.
“We’re going to continue to be buying a lot of corn coming into this plant,” Stone said when the sale was announced in September. “It’s going to be a continuation of that, with producing a higher-value product.
10 — Ex-U.S. Sen. Rod Grams, owner of LF Radio, dies
Former Republican U.S. Sen. Rod Grams died Oct. 8 at his home in Crown. On Sept. 4, Grams, 65, announced he had been battling colon cancer since 2012 and was receiving hospice care at his home.
Grams and his wife, Chris, owned Little Falls Radio.
Grams, a longtime anchor for KMSP-TV in the Twin Cities, was goaded by what he perceived as overreaching government. So, he entered politics and defeated 6th Congressional District DFL Congressman Gerry Sikorski in 1992. Two years later, Grams ran for the U.S. Senate, winning again.
Current Gov. Mark Dayton defeated Grams in his 2000 U.S. Senate re-election bid. Grams ran for the U.S. House in the 8th Congressional District in 2006, but was not elected.
In speaking about his illness in September, Grams had expressed a sense of peace.
“I’m real confident where I am in my faith,” Grams had said. “My last breath here, my next breath will be in heaven.”