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2009 Year in Review

Area communities hosted large send-off ceremonies in April for the 560 soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 151st Field Artillery of the Minnesota National Guard as they left for training prior to deployment. (Tribune file photo)

While a number of stories played a part in shaping the region during 2009, the deployment of 500 troops from the region, along with an area soldier's death, ranked as the No. 1 local news story.

Several stories had local impact -- like the U.S. Senate recount of regional ballots that seemed to drag on for months and the national health care debate -- but the Tribune news staff deemed those more state and national stories, as opposed to regional stories when it came time to vote on the area's Top 10 news events of the year.

Following is a list of the stories decided on as the area's Top 10 as determined by the Tribune news staff.

1.Answering call to duty,

and making the ultimate sacrifice

Nearly 560 soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 151st Field Artillery of the Minnesota National Guard answered the call to duty in 2009 and are serving to provide long-haul convoy duty to both northern and southern Iraq from their base in Kuwait.

The sacrifices made by the deployed troops and their families -- and the ultimate sacrifice made by Army National Guard Specialist James Wertish of rural Olivia -- represent the top news of 2009 for their importance and poignancy to the region.

Hundreds of people lined the streets of Renville County communities in July to show their respects as the body of Wertish, 20, was returned home. He had been killed July 16 in a missile attack at a military base near Basara, Iraq, where he was serving with the Minnesota National Guard 34th Infantry Division.

He was remembered at services July 23 at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Bird Island as someone "always willing to help.''

The nearly 560 troops with the 151st and assigned to units based in Montevideo, Appleton, Olivia, Madison, Morris, Ortonville and Marshall were hailed as heroes at send-off ceremonies in April as they left for training at Fort Hood, Texas. The soldiers deployed in July to Camp Virginia in north-central Kuwait. They are expected to return to Minnesota in April.

Troops with the 1st Battalion, 151st Field Artillery had also deployed to Iraq in 2004-2005. This is the second deployment for 140 of the soldiers now serving.

-- Tom Cherveny

2. Tough year financially for schools; buildings consolidated in area districts

Tight state funding and years of declining enrollment led to some difficult decisions for area school districts.

Willmar closed two of its smaller elementary schools and consolidated all elementary students into the larger Kennedy and Roosevelt schools. Sixth-graders moved to the junior high to make it a middle school.

Renville County West closed its Sacred Heart elementary school and moved all students to the larger school building in Renville. The district has gone from operating three buildings to one in recent years.

Special levies to help pay operating expenses approved in RCW and in MACCRAY, but they were rejected in Montevideo and Paynesville.

-- Linda Vanderwerf

3. Energy ups and downs with Big Stone II, Willmar wind turbines

The plug was pulled on a large regional power plant designed to produce electrical energy from coal, but one city got plugged into a smaller project designed to produce energy from the wind.

The fate of the 550-megawatt, coal-fired Big Stone II power plant at Big Stone City, S.D., was sealed after the lead developer, Otter Tail Power Company, withdrew in September from the $1.6 billion project and the remaining four partners couldn't recruit a replacement investor.

The plant, almost five years in the planning, would have been built next to the smaller Big Stone I plant and would have provided electricity to customers in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Otter Tail based its withdrawal on the economic downtown and uncertain federal environmental regulations.

The project's demise pleased environmentalists who said Big Stone II was unneeded, environmentally bad and not the least-cost option for customers.

But the decision disappointed utilities that had planned to buy Big Stone II power, including Willmar Municipal Utilities, which hoped to replace 30 megawatts from Great River Energy in 2015 with a like amount from Big Stone II.

Willmar Utilities got plugged into renewable energy, however, when officials and the public in early September dedicated the utilities' two sleek new wind turbines, which officials say will produce 3 percent of the city's energy needs.

Each unit cost $3.3 million and installation was budgeted to be over $1 million each. According to officials, the projected cost for each kilowatt produced is less than 5 cents, which should remain equal to or less than today's market price of energy, even though future energy costs are expected to increase.

The start-up of the complicated turbines has been problematic, however, as little glitches arose that kept the blades atop the 262-foot towers from turning on a couple of occasions. The most recent occurred in December when utility officials discovered the manufacturer did not install heating equipment ordered by Willmar to keep the high-tech equipment turning in the winter. All service calls have been covered under warranty.

-- David Little

4. Long fall harvest

Farmers will remember 2009 for its long fall harvest season -- a season that still isn't finished for some corn farmers even though winter has a full grip on the land.

Some west central Minnesota farmers were still combining corn on Dec. 23, until the Christmas storm dumped 12-15 inches of snow on the area.

There will likely be corn standing in the field that will be harvested in the spring.

Crop farmers were hampered by a wetter-than-normal and colder-than-normal October.

It was the third wettest October on record in Minnesota.

Crops were saved by a warmer-than-normal November that allowed the soybeans to be harvested.

Muddy fields leftover from persistent October rains complicated the sugar beet harvest, but a majority of that crop was eventually taken out before severe cold temperatures set in.

But the wet fields and high moisture in the corn crop resulted in expensive drying costs in some cases and corn mold in other cases.

The consolation prize was that corn yields in most cases were better than normal.

-- Carolyn Lange

5. Wagar son guilty of misdemeanor charge in homecoming case, county passes TP ordinance

In the aftermath of a Sept. 16, 2008, homecoming incident that included a rural Willmar homeowner spraying teens with a squirt gun filled with water and fox urine, a young man was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of receiving stolen property and the county has a new ordinance fining toilet papering teens up to $300.

Thomas Albert Wagar, 25, of Minneapolis, was convicted of the misdemeanor charge in a jury trial in December and will be sentenced Jan. 21. He was originally charged with a felony, but that charge was diminished by the jury's valuation of the military-issue night vision goggles, which were used by his father during the homecoming incident, which included an altercation between Wagar and another person, who was among a group of young people who had come to his property. Wagar had sprayed the group with a squirt gun filled with water and fox urine. They, in turn, had thrown eggs and toilet paper on his property.

Wagar and his father, Scott Edward Wagar, 51, of Willmar, were both charged in January with felony counts for possessing the goggles. All of the charges connected to the homecoming incident -- including misdemeanors for fifth-degree assault, disorderly conduct and theft -- against Scott Wagar were dismissed for lack of probable cause in March. The case drew national attention, with most people siding with Wagar as a wronged homeowner without any rights to defend himself.

In September, the Kandiyohi County Board passed a new ordinance that allows law enforcement to cite teens with a petty misdemeanor, and an accompanying fine of up to $300, if they are caught draping trees with toilet paper against the wishes of the homeowner. The citation would also apply to other materials typically used in homecoming pranks: Shaving cream, eggs, paint, chocolate syrup or any other kind of liquid, foam, food or solid material.

-- Gretchen Schlosser

6. Teen gets 30 years in stabbing death,

woman sent to prison for death of baby

A teenager was sentenced to 30 years in prison for stabbing a man in July 2008 and a woman will serve 58 months in prison for causing the death of a 3-month-old baby and injuring his mother this July.

Miles David Edinburgh, 19, of Willmar, was sentenced in December to 30 years in prison for the murder of Ridgewater College football captain Adam Kenneth Milton, 21.

Edinburgh, who claimed self-defense, was found guilty of second-degree intentional murder, plus a lesser included charge of second-degree unintentional murder, in an October jury trial in Kandiyohi County District Court.

Edinburgh was charged with one count of second-degree murder for Milton's July 20, 2008, death. Milton, who played football for Ridgewater College, was declared dead at Rice Memorial Hospital about one hour after police were called to the Evergreen Apartments, near the college, regarding a stabbing.

Edinburgh was 17 years old at the time of the stabbing and was certified as an adult in the case in October 2008. The adult certification was appealed, but the decision was upheld by the State Appeals Court. Testimony during the trial included that Milton died after one of the stab wounds damaged his heart. Edinburgh testified that he had stabbed Milton in self-defense after the football player ran after him. The men were part of two groups who had an earlier altercation in a nearby parking lot.

In November, Nicolle Marie Mercedes Prechel, 31, of Willmar, was sentenced to 58 months in prison for causing the death of a 3-month-old baby and injuring his mother. The sentence was handed down in Renville County District Court.

Prechel was sentenced on charges of criminal vehicular homicide for the July 5 death of Whyatt James Sander and criminal vehicular injury for injuring his mother, Sheena Hinshaw. Prechel had backed over their tent with a minivan after a night of drinking most of a liter of Southern Comfort whiskey and smoking marijuana. The incident happened at Renville County's Beaver Falls Park.

It came after an emotional hearing where the child's parents asked for no leniency for Prechel, where Prechel cried and apologized for her actions and where her attorneys sought chemical dependency treatment instead of prison time for their client.

The baby, the son of Prechel's cousin Jacob Sander, was declared dead soon after he arrived at Redwood Falls Hospital. Prechel was arrested while driving the same van to the hospital. Toxicology tests showed she had a blood-alcohol level of 0.13 percent and traces of marijuana in her system about three hours after the incident.

-- Gretchen Schlosser

7. Appleton prison to close

Employees of the Prairie Correctional Facility are coping with the hard-hitting news that the 1,600-bed private prison will close its doors on Feb. 1, 2010, when the last of its inmates are transferred to Minnesota correctional facilities.

Prison owner Corrections Corporation of America continues to aggressively market the facility and hopes the closing is temporary. It has offered employees opportunities for positions elsewhere with the other 64 facilities it operates, with the promise of being able to return to their jobs in Appleton if the prison re-opens.

The announcement of the closing in early December followed a turbulent year for employees. Inmate numbers declined through the year. The State of Washington removed its 100 prisoners and Minnesota began a process of transferring its inmates. The prison attempted to avoid lay-offs by shortening work weeks and through attrition, but laid-off 120 employees in October as inmate numbers continued to decline.

When fully occupied, the prison had a staffing level of 370. The loss of jobs and the economic activity the prison generates was termed "devastating" news to the City of Appleton. The loss will be felt throughout the region as the prison's employees live in communities throughout a 50- to 60-mile radius of the facility.

-- Tom Cherveny

8. Intersection continues to be troublesome

As the toll continued to mount at the troubled intersection of North Business 71 and Kandiyohi County Road 24, local officials sat down to debate solutions for how to reduce crashes at this busy location.

Despite discussion and a series of meetings, the city of Willmar, Kandiyohi County and the Minnesota Department of Transportation were unable to reach a consensus on the best approach.

The city's choice, which also was suggested by citizens: closing the east end of the intersection, requiring motorists to circle around to Civic Center Drive in order to reach the Health and Human Services Building and the Law Enforcement Center.

Kandiyohi County and MnDOT, however, favor barring all east-west traffic from crossing Highway 71 -- and both want further evaluation of the design options before they'll be willing to support the city.

All the parties must agree on an intersection design before permits can be issued and a three-way cost-sharing formula can be developed.

MnDOT wants further study of access, safety and feasibility issues. In the meantime, city officials are moving forward with design work.

-- Anne Polta

9. Wisconsin sex offender charged with beating, robbing woman at rural church

A 61-year-old habitual sex offender, who had been indefinitely committed to a Wisconsin mental health program but was later released, was charged in November for beating, sexually assaulting and robbing a 73-year-old woman on Nov. 22 as she worked as a custodian at the Crow River Lutheran Church in rural Belgrade.

Lindon Roy Knutson, who lists a Bemidji address but has spent much of the last 30 years in Wisconsin prisons or institutions, is being held on $500,000 bail in the Kandiyohi County Jail and faces four felony charges: first-degree criminal sexual conduct, first-degree aggravated robbery, third-degree assault and theft. His next court appearance is scheduled for Jan. 12 in Kandiyohi County District Court.

According to Wisconsin Department of Human Services records, Knutson admitted to sexually assaulting nine juveniles, an adult woman and female prisoners of war while in Vietnam with the U.S. military, was sentenced to prison for raping a 17-year-old girl in St. Croix County, Wis., in 1975 and civilly committed in 1999 until released in March. He was arrested by Beltrami County officials two weeks before the local incident and was charged with a felony there for failing to comply with sex offender registration guidelines. He was released on a $2,500 bond three days after he was arrested.

In the local case, law enforcement was called to the church, about 5 miles south of Belgrade on a report that a woman had been assaulted. A passerby had taken the woman to Paynesville Hospital. The woman gave officers a description of Knutson and his vehicle. She had given Knutson a tour of the church and directions to Bemidji before he physically and sexually assaulted her. He was arrested in Cosmos after the city's police chief stopped his vehicle for a traffic violation and realized Knutson and his car matched the descriptions given by the victim.

-- Gretchen Schlosser

10. Northwoods Baseball comes to Willmar

The Willmar Stingers will take the field at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar in June.

The team will be part of the Northwoods League, a summer developmental league for college players with one year of NCAA eligibility remaining.

The league will play a 68-game schedule with 34 home games from early June to mid-August. Playoffs will follow the regular season.

The Stingers will bring an entertaining minor league baseball atmosphere to Willmar with promotions at many games.

Matt Hollod, currently an assistant coach at Southern Utah University, will be the Stingers' first manager.

-- Linda Vanderwerf