During the celebration of the shiny new year of 2017, the long, cold winter nights also offer ample time to look back over the triumphs and tragedies of the previous year, and reflect on what surprises the coming months might hold for Morrison County.
The Record’s annual tradition of ringing in the New Year includes polling community members and newspaper staff alike on which stories were the biggest, most important news of the year in Morrison County.
Three topics that dominated the list this year were crime, politics and disasters, both natural and man-made.
Law enforcement continues to try to find who shot and killed Terry Brisk while he was hunting in November. In December, Morrison County Sheriff Shawn Larsen said law enforcement had determined the death was a homicide.
Byron Smith, convicted of first degree murder in the 2012 shooting deaths of Haile Kifer, 18, and Nicholas Brady, 17, continued to be in the headlines, as the Minnesota Supreme Court denied his request for a retrial.
Carlee Bollig, who was convicted of vehicular homicide for the deaths of Becker resident Charles Maurer and his 10-year-old daughter, Cassy, in July 2015, was given a stayed sentence of 69 months, probation until she turns 21 and 240 hours of community service.
A business born in Little Falls over a century ago announced it would be leaving. Larson Boats will leave the city, setting sail for Pulaski, Wis. The company’s president, Rob Parmentier, said changes in the boat market had prompted the company to consolidate in Wisconsin.
In September, two disasters struck the area. On Sept. 7, a tornado struck Green Prairie Fish Lake and Camp Ripley, damaging homes, boats and the nearly completed $25 million solar array at Camp Ripley.
Then, on Sept. 17, a Saturday night at the Crossroads Mall in St. Cloud turned into a terrifying experience for shoppers, including Morrison County residents. Dahir Ahmed Adan, 20, stabbed and wounded 10 people before being shot and killed.
2016 saw Morrison County voters cast ballots for everything from a president to local officials to referendums.
One part of a bond referendum for the Little Falls School District passed. The measure gave $19.67 million for deferred maintenance, renovations and other work on buildings in the district.
Another question on the referendum was whether or not to approve $12.645 million for a new gymnasium/recreational addition to the Little Falls Community High School. Voters said no to this measure.
There was drama at the Royalton School Board this year, beginning with public uproar over not renewing the contract of wrestling coach Terry Gorecki and ending with a contested election that saw both incumbent school board members up for re-election lose.
Morrison County also chose to vote for Donald Trump, and led the state in support for the now president-elect.
Finally, the lawsuit between the Friends of Hurrle Hall and the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls came to an agreement about the future of the building.
Following are the top 10 stories of the year, based on responses received:
1. Terry Brisk killed while hunting. Law enforcement calls it homicide.
On Nov. 7, the Monday after deer hunting opener, Terrence (Terry) Brisk was hunting in Belle Prairie Township.
Originally, investigators tried to determine whether or not someone shot Brisk accidentally. A $10,000 reward was offered to anyone who could provide information leading to whoever shot Brisk. It increased to $20,000 and then $30,000.
Morrison County Sheriff Shawn Larsen said in a press conference Dec. 7, that law enforcement was no longer considering this an accident, but rather a homicide.
At the conference, Larsen said Brisk’s gun, a Winchester Model AE 30-30 lever action rifle, was missing. The sheriff asked for the public’s help in locating it.
Larsen said his department and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension had questioned several suspects and conducted multiple interviews.
Brisk left behind his wife, Pamela, and four children.
2. Larson Boats leaves Little Falls after 100 years in town.
Larson Boats, founded in Little Falls more than 100 years ago, announced Nov. 9, 2016, that it was closing its operations in Little Falls during the first quarter of 2017. The company will move all operations to its location in Pulaski, Wis.
Larson Boat Group president and CEO Rob Parmentier said the decision came after “months of analysis, financial review and personal agony.”
Parmentier said with changes in the boat market worldwide, the company had to consolidate with the organization in Wisconsin to stay competitive.
He also said all 141 employees at the Little Falls facility would be offered jobs in Pulaski, and that the company was in talks with a multi-national manufacturer to buy its facility in Little Falls.
The company would honor any financial obligations it has outstanding with Little Falls or economic development groups, Matthew Vetzner, vice president of marketing said.
The company took a $500,000 loan from the Rural Development Finance Authority and another $500,000 from the Minnesota Investment Fund. Larson Boats was current on all payments and has said it plans to pay off the loans before it leaves.
3. Measure 1 of the Little Falls School District referendum passes, but voters say no to measure 2.
After a referendum failed in 2015 as one measure, the Little Falls School Board split the referendum into two questions. “Can the district raise $19.67 million for deferred maintenance and renovations?” and “Can it raise another $12.645 million for a gymnasium recreational addition to the Little Falls Community High School?”
Voters said yes to the first question and no to the second.
Judges for the May 10, 2016, election said voters streamed in all day. In 2016, 4,868 voters turned out to vote on the referendum, up 1,200 from the 3,668 in 2015.
School Board Chair Mark Gerbi said he was relieved the first question passed as the district needed to get roofs fixed, improve security, make air quality improvements and much more.
Doug Dahlberg, chairman of the “Say Yes for Your Community” campaign, said the district needed the space that would’ve been made available had the second question passed. Dahlberg said more students were participating in activities than when the last building project was done before Title IX. This requires equal opportunities for female students as well as male students with extracurricular activities.
Others were happy the second option was voted down, such as business owner and farmer Allen Czech, who said spending more than $60 million over 25 years with enrollment declining wasn’t justifiable.
Czech said he hoped the School Board and Superintendent Steven Jones would continue to push for farmers to be taxed only for one acre, plus their home when it comes to bonding referendums, instead of their total acreage.
Czech also said he hoped with it not passing twice now, the Board wouldn’t bring up a vote for the gymnasium addition again.
Low interest rates brought the project’s cost from $32.3 million (cost of bond plus interest over 25 years) to $26.35 million, a decrease of $6.6 million.
With passage of the first question, the 2017 property tax levy passed by the Board, Dec. 19, rose to $4.394 million, a 32.3 percent increase over 2016.
4. Minnesota Supreme Court upholds Byron Smith’s conviction.
The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Byron Smith would not get a new trial for the murders of Haile Kifer, 18, and Nicholas Brady, 17. Smith shot them multiple times when they broke into his home on Thanksgiving Day 2012.
Smith’s attorney Steve J. Meshbesher of Meshbesher and Associates, Minneapolis, said Smith deserved a new trial because Judge Douglas Anderson allegedly closed the courtroom and denied allowing several witnesses to testify, including one who allegedly broke into Smith’s home with Brady on another occasion and an expert on Smith’s state of mind at the time.
The justices ruled that the Morrison County District Court had not made the errors alleged by Meshbesher.
The court also overturned the District Court’s ruling that Smith did not have to pay for Kifer and Brady’s headstones as part of restitution. The amount Smith was ordered to pay for both headstones was $19,449.62.
5. Morrison County residents among those present during St. Cloud mall attack.
On Sept. 17, 2016, a Saturday night, Little Falls teen, Nicollet Gammon-Deering went to the American Eagle store at the Crossroads Mall in St. Cloud to return a pair of jeans.
Then she and her friend, Jacob Biermaier, heard the screams break out as St. Cloud resident Dahir Ahmed Adan, 20, attacked mall-goers, stabbing 10.
Meanwhile, Gwen Welinski, a teacher in Little Falls, was shopping at the mall when the attack broke out. She ran to find her daughter who was shopping at the American Eagle Store.
Welinski was joined by others who ran to the store seeking shelter as Adan ran to the Macy’s store.
American Eagle employees put the store on lockdown, where they remained for around two hours, before leaving through the food court after Adan was confirmed to be in Macy’s.
The situation ended when Adan was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer from Avon, Jason Falconer.
Welinski said Falconer was the biggest blessing of the event, and that she was glad there were people like him who were willing to risk dying to protect others.
She also said she wouldn’t be letting her kids shop alone for a while.
Gammon-Deering said she didn’t plan to go back to the mall for a while. Though she said some people might tell her this wouldn’t happen the next time she went, she said they don’t know what the situation felt like, calling it “crazy.”
6. Tornado hits Camp Ripley and Green Prairie Fish Lake, state of emergency is declared.
While watching television on the night of Sept. 7, 2016, Kenny Radermacher didn’t know there was danger from a tornado until he felt his camper at Laurie’s Lakeside Resort on Green Prairie Fish Lake lift a foot off its concrete blocks before being put down. The unoccupied camper next to his was tipped over on its side, and the next day, it was evident that boats, docks and pontoons were gone. Trees were uprooted and everything was in disarray.
A mile down the road, Joe Yagar said he didn’t hear anything and suffered no damage.
The storm then crossed Highway 115, and entered Camp Ripley, damaging several buildings and the nearly completed, $25 million solar array.
The Morrison County Sheriff’s Department determined that the path of the storm moved east-northeast from 100th Avenue approximately 1/2-mile north of Highway 10 and continued through Camp Ripley ending approximately 1/4 to 1/2 mile north of 233rd Street on 165th Avenue.
The storm affected Darling, Green Prairie and Ripley townships.
Morrison County and Camp Ripley applied together for a state of emergency to be declared after the storm did millions of dollars in damage.
7. Unrest at meetings of Royalton School Board following vote not to renew wrestling coach’s contract.
Following Royalton wrestling coach Terry Gorecki being censured by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL), the Royalton School Board voted 4 – 2 in April, to not renew Gorecki for another year. In November 2015, that same vote failed on a 3-3 vote.
Board members Jeff Swenson, Jim Block, Dale Lenz and Michelle Carlson voted in favor of non-renewal, while Liz Verley and Randy Hackett voted against the measure.
While the meeting where the Board voted not to renew Gorecki was calm in the presence of the Royalton Police Chief, other meetings on the issue were filled with supporters of Gorecki and heckling and outbursts happened.
Gorecki had said Athletic Director Brent Lieser said he followed all policies in his first year, and that Secondary Principal Joel Swenson told the MSHSL that Gorecki had followed all the directives this year.
Before the Board’s vote, Carlson asked both Lieser and Swenson whether they supported not bringing Gorecki back, and both said they did, as did Superintendent Jon Ellerbusch.
Because this was a personnel issue, Lieser said the administrators couldn’t say their reasons for recommending not renewing Gorecki’s contract.
Ellerbusch would face opposition later in the year, when, during a candidate forum for the 2016 election, School Board candidate Ellie Holms accused Ellerbusch of trying to use the Gorecki issue to distract from the issue of the high school’s addition project coming in at $28 million, $2 million over budget.
Three board seats were up for election in 2016. Verley and Swenson were both running for re-election and both received fewer votes than four of the challenging candidates.
Verley received 365 votes and Swenson received 531 votes. Jason Leibold came out of the election with the fourth highest number of votes, with 610.
Mark Petron, who garnered 1,252 votes, Ellie Holm with 1,066 and Noel Guerard with 756 won seats on the Board. Incumbent Michelle Carlson chose not to run.
8. Morrison County leads Minnesota in support for Trump.
President-Elect Donald Trump may not have won Minnesota as a whole, but he did win Morrison County, so much so that the county led the state in support for Trump.
Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Morrison County, 12,925 votes to 3,637, or 73 percent to 20 percent.
Overall, Trump lost Minnesota, 1.32 million to 1.36 million, or 45 percent to 46 percent.
9. Texting LF teen convicted of vehicular homicide in Becker crash.
Carlee Rose Bollig, 17, Little Falls, was convicted of gross negligent vehicular homicide in Sherburne County Court. She was sentenced March 4, 2016, to four years of probation and 240 hours of community service.
The conviction was the result of an incident on July 21, 2015, when Bollig was using Facebook while driving and ignored demands from her passengers to stop.
She hit a van driven by Charles Maurer of Becker, killing him and his 10-year-old daughter Cassy.
Family members of the victims, as well as other individuals in both vehicles who were injured, gave statements on what they suffered because of Bollig.
Rhonda Maurer, a relative of Charles and Cassy, said Bollig had shattered her life.
Ten percent of Bollig’s community service will be spent working on curriculum on safe driving and speaking to students.
Bollig is also required to undergo treatment at a facility in Duluth.
If Bollig violates the conditions of her probation, she will be sent to prison for 69 months.
10. Litigation between Friends of Hurrle Hall and Franciscan Sisters ends.
When the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls announced they planned to demolish the historic Hurrle Hall, a group called the Friends of Hurrle Hall (FHH) formed to try to stop them.
The Sisters said maintaining a building built in 1891, that is not up to health or safety codes, and that is now larger than what the Sisters need, is draining the resources they use for charitable works.
The FHH argued that the building was a piece of Little Falls history, given that it’s regarded as one of the first institutional buildings in the city and was designated a city landmark in 2002 by the Historical Preservation Commission.
The Friends tried speaking at meetings, protesting and making petitions before deciding to sue the Franciscan Sisters in April, 2016.
The FHH hired attorney Erik Hansen of Burns Hansen Attorneys at Law, Minneapolis to represent them.
Hansen won a case where his client, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, sued Minneapolis to keep them from demolishing Peavey Plaza near Orchestra Hall.
Hansen said he was hoping a judge would declare Hurrle Hall a historical resource, based on the Historical Preservation Committee’s ruling and because it was eligible to be put on the National Register for Historic Places.
The Franciscan Sisters announced Sept. 27, 2016, they had come to an agreement with the FHH and that Hurrle Hall wouldn’t be demolished in the immediate future.
The Sisters will hold off on demolition until 2019, during which time they will work to find a new owner.
If a new owner sees a new use for the building, the Sisters said they would support the idea.
The Sisters’ attorney, Marc Manderscheid, said this decision comes as the Franciscan Sisters consider the idea of selling their property and leasing the buildings they use as their numbers get smaller and their members get older.
Hansen said he and his clients were ecstatic with the decision.