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2008 Year in Review

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extra Willmar, 56201
West Central Tribune
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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

A tornado that hit in the early evening hours of July 11, destroying several homes south of Willmar, was the region's top news story in 2008.

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A criminal vehicular homicide conviction for the driver involved in the bus crash that killed four students near Cottonwood, the fatal stabbing of a Ridgewater student, a soldier killed in Afghanistan, a fine levied by OSHA in a worker's death at Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar and a grand jury indictment in the death of an Appleton woman four years earlier were also voted among the year's top news stories.

Rounding out the Top 10, as voted on by the Tribune news staff, are the new four-day school week at MACCRAY, program cuts at Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar, the on-going recount for a Senate seat, the Westwinds controversy in Willmar and the continued city turmoil in Spicer.

No. 1

Tornado travels eight miles, damaging homes, barns, businesses

In the early evening of July 11, an EF-3 tornado struck near Priam and traveled eight miles, leaving behind a 200-yard-wide swath of destruction just southeast of Willmar.

The winds, estimated at 136 to 150 mph by the National Weather Service, damaged or destroyed a half-dozen homes, flattened numerous barns and out-buildings, lifted heavy farm equipment into piles of twisted metal, snapped hundreds of trees, carried home possessions miles away in swirling winds and left families shaken to the bone and still picking up the pieces.

Several businesses were also hit. Farm implements in the lot at Arnolds of Willmar Inc. were thrown into a heap and strewn in farm fields. Two people who were working in a turkey barn that was damaged in the storm were the only victims to report personal injuries.

If the storm had tracked just a little farther north and struck the southern edge of Willmar's business and residential area, the losses and injuries could potentially have been much greater.

No. 2

Bus crash trial moves to Willmar,

Olga Franco found guilty

Olga Marina Franco Del Cid, 24, of Minneota, was found guilty Aug. 6 of 24 counts, including criminal vehicular homicide, for driving a minivan that caused a school bus crash and killed four Lakeview School students in February near Cottonwood.

The Lyon County case was moved to Kandiyohi County District Court on a change of venue. The five-man, seven-woman jury comprised of Kandiyohi County residents returned the verdict after eight hours of deliberation.

The Guatemalan woman was later sentenced to nearly 13 years in prison. During the trial, firefighters testified that they had to extricate Franco, also known as Alianiss Nunes Morales, from the driver's seat of the van. Conversely, Franco testified that her boyfriend, Francisco Mendoza, was driving the van.

Franco was charged with criminal vehicular homicide for the deaths of Jesse Javens, 13; his brother, Hunter Javens, 9; Emilee Olson, 9; and Reed Stevens, 12. Sixteen other children, who ranged in age from 4 to 15 years old, and James Hancock, the driver whose vehicle was struck by the bus, were injured in the crash. Franco was also charged with 13 felony and four gross misdemeanor charges of criminal vehicular injury.

No. 3 (tie)

Edinburgh charged with murder

of Ridgewater football player

Miles David Edinburgh, 18, of Willmar, was charged in July for the stabbing death of Adam Kenneth Milton, 21, of Willmar.

Edinburgh was certified as an adult in district court in October and was charged with one felony count of second-degree murder for Milton's death. Edinburgh was 17 at the time of the stabbing of the Ridgewater College student and football player. Milton suffered two stab wounds to the chest during a scuffle and died after he was taken to Rice Memorial Hospital.

In December, District Judge Jon Stafsholt ordered that adult criminal proceedings against Edinburgh be stayed pending the final decision on the appeal of his adult certification.

Edinburgh was charged after Willmar police were called during the early morning hours of July 20 to the 1300 block of 24th Street Northwest.

Milton was transported to Rice Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 1:44 a.m. Police found Edinburgh hiding under a car in a driveway nearby.

A group of men told officers they were at an apartment, heard a knock at the door and opened it to find three men. They told the group to leave, but one of them, later identified as Edinburgh, hung around a vehicle in the parking lot. The men told the teen to leave, and punches and racial slurs were exchanged. Edinburgh then fled, with Milton in pursuit.

Milton and Edinburgh were "scrapping," when Milton fell to the ground. A witness told police that Milton said "he poked me with something" before he saw the blood and called police.

No. 3 (tie)

MACCRAY moves to four-day week to save on expenses

The MACCRAY School District instituted a four-day school week in September, a fundamental change in the schedule to try to improve its budget outlook.

School officials said they felt the change could save about $100,000 a year in utilities, transportation and other costs. It was expected to improve attendance, too.

When the Tribune checked last fall, students "loved" having Mondays off.

School districts also took the traditional approach of asking their voters to approve operating levies to help with tight budgets. Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City was successful in that effort after numerous attempts, and New London-Spicer voters passed a levy in a referendum, too. Levies failed in MACCRAY and Litchfield, and Willmar voters approved the less expensive of two levy questions.

RCW failed in its efforts to get voters to approve a new K-12 school building. Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa voters approved a bond issue for repairs to district facilities but denied an operating levy.

No. 5

Patient programs cut at Rice Hospital

The year 2008 also saw $3 million worth of budget cuts at Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar. The cuts, announced Aug. 21, were deemed necessary to head off financial losses. Two outpatient chronic disease management programs -- one for diabetes, the other for congestive heart failure -- were both eliminated and 13 people were laid off as part of the slashing of expenditures.

The two patient programs aren't permanently gone, however. Willmar Medical Services, a joint venture between the hospital and Affiliated Community Medical Centers, created the Willmar Diabetes Center at the beginning of October to fill the gap in outpatient diabetes management and education. That same month, Family Practice Medical Center announced it will pick up the congestive heart failure program.

No. 6

Rice Hospital fined by OSHA in worker's death

A lengthy investigation into the 2007 death of a medical records worker at Rice Memorial Hospital ended this year when the city-owned hospital reached a settlement in May with the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Rice was fined a total of $50,000 for two safety violations that led to the death of Susan Leukam, 51. Leukam suffocated when she accidentally became trapped between the shelves of a motorized filing system at the hospital on Nov. 23, 2007. She died three days later.

The fine -- $25,000 for each of the two violations -- is the maximum levied by OSHA in connection with a work-related death. Hospital officials said they've taken steps to prevent any similar injuries and deaths from occurring again.

No. 7

Sgt. Matthew Kahler killed in Afghanistan

Hundreds of silent mourners lined the streets of Granite Falls as the body of Sgt. Matthew Ryan Kahler came home in early February.

Kahler, 29, was killed Jan. 26 while leading his platoon on a patrol near Waygul, Afghanistan. He served with the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.

Kahler was serving his third tour in the Middle East. Friends said no one was more willing to put himself in harm's way for his country. "Sergeant Matthew Ryan Kahler is someone who believed so much in his country that he was willing to sacrifice his life without hesitation, without hesitation,'' said Ben Lecy, a Yellow Medicine East High School teacher.

Kahler was a 1997 graduate of the Yellow Medicine East High School and had married his high school sweetheart, Vicki Streich. He is also survived by his daughter, Allison; and parents, Colleen Kahler of Montevideo and Ron Kahler of Searles.

No. 8 (tie)

Westwind Estates project snarls city government

The workforce housing project known as Westwind Estates Third Addition in southwest Willmar snarled the City Council. The housing project was proposed by Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership of Slayton, and was a source of tension among council members.

Discussions surrounding the project resulted in tie votes on project-related matters and a walkout by four of eight council members to prevent a vote on the Westwind street improvements.

The project stirred heated debate among local residents about the need for such housing and who would be living there, and led to the ouster of Steve Gardner, a project supporter, on the council from the southwest part of town in the November general election. Gardner will be replaced on the council by Tim Johnson, a project opponent.

Supporters said the project meets the needs for affordable housing for low- and moderate-income residents.

Opponents said the twin-home project is not compatible with the nearby existing single-family development.

The developers threatened to sue the city if the council did not approve a conditional use permit to allow construction of the lease-to-own twin homes. The lawsuit was withdrawn after the council agreed to allow construction of twin homes for rent and allow the street and utility work to proceed.

Zoning of the land where the housing project is being built allows development of twin homes. Street and utility construction started this fall but was stopped by rain and wet soil conditions.

No. 8 (tie)

Recount continues in Senate race

County auditors hauled out boxes of ballots in November and coordinated their share of the massive state recount of Minnesota's U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman and DFL challenger Al Franken.

As election judges hand-counted every ballot, representatives from each campaign sat at the table to examine each ballot to make sure the intention of the voter was clear. Ballots that had a stray mark in an oval or words written on the ballot often ended up in the pile of "challenged ballots."

In most area counties there was little difference in the hand-counted vote tally compared to the electronically counted tally.

When it came to challenged ballots, there were just one or two identified in Kandiyohi, Chippewa and Swift counties.

Campaign representatives were more aggressive in Meeker County, where 58 ballots were challenged.

Questions remain about the handling of absentee ballots deemed to have been "wrongly rejected."

The process of determining who actually won the Senate seat is not expected to be finalized until well into 2009.

No. 10 (tie)

Lemcke indicted in wife's death

A fatal shooting four years earlier in an Appleton home has led to murder charges.

A Swift County grand jury issued indictments for first-degree pre-meditated murder and second-degree intentional murder against Andrew Gordon Lemcke, 34, in the shooting death of his wife, Nichole Riley-Lemcke, 26, on Sept. 12, 2004, in their Appleton home.

Lemcke made his first court appearance Dec. 19 in district court in Benson and is currently free on $10,000 bail.

A grand jury had returned no bill of indictment when convened in 2006. The Minnesota Attorney General told the court it presented new forensic evidence and expert testimony based on that evidence to the second grand jury convened in the matter.

Lemcke has been living in Florence, Ariz., with his 5-year-old daughter and working as a corrections officer with the Corrections Corporation of America. He turned himself in to authorities there when notified by his attorney of the grand jury's indictment.

The parents of Nichole Riley-Lemcke have been pressing for criminal charges against him in the death of their daughter, and had filed a wrongful death suit against him. They allege that the couple's marriage had soured and their daughter was fearful of him.

No. 10 (tie)

Turmoil continues at Spicer City Hall

It was another year of turmoil for Spicer's city government.

In late February, Councilman Troy Block called for the resignation of Mayor Perry Wohnoutka, citing the loss of employees. The city administrator and the Economic Development Authority director had each resigned the previous month. Block received no support in his request; Wohnoutka's tenure as mayor will end this month. Local businessman Denny Baker was elected mayor during the general election.

Wohnoutka was also caught up in a heated dispute with Dan Haats, the city's public works director. Haats' job performance had come under scrutiny at public meetings, an issue complicated further by a restraining order he filed against the mayor.

In April, Andrea Aukrust was hired as Spicer's city administrator and EDA director. However, by fall the daily workings at City Hall had deteriorated further.

During Spicer's Sept. 11 meeting, Aukrust and City Clerk LaNae Osmond threatened to file grievances against one another. The council approved the hiring of a mediator "to deal with issues and problems that exist as a whole," at city hall, according to City Attorney Barry Darval.

In the midst of the two-month mediation process, the council placed Aukrust on unpaid medical leave. She had previously reported her physician told her not to work. Meanwhile, Aukrust's attorney is threatening litigation against the city for reasons that have not been stated publicly.

Spicer is anticipating Aukrust's return sometime this month.

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