It was a year of unexpected news

Published 9:02 am Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The year 2007 had the kind of news that seems to be the standard stuff that happens in a community.

Last year, the No. 1 story the year for the Albert Lea area was the debate and approval of school ballot measures in the Albert Lea, Alden-Conger and United South Central school districts. Others high on the list were a grain elevator fire, a grain-bin drowning, successful charity drives, a veterans memorial dedication, a library expansion, a few ugly traffic wrecks and one golf course’s foreclosure and another’s groundbreaking. The unlikeliest items were the cancellation of a parade, local reaction to a bridge collapse in Minneapolis and the mysterious, unsolved murder of a local woman in her Rochester home.

The year 2008, however, is loaded with unexpected news. Many people from the area living elsewhere were shocked to see Albert Lea as the dateline for stories on allegations of elder abuse. Who would have thought this place would have been the subject of a national TV show? Who would have predicted the election results or the high number of traffic fatalities after last year’s low figure? Or the deaths from the County 34 washout? Or the closing of the biodiesel plant or Starbucks up and leaving after opening just four years ago? Don’t forget the rock thrown in the Third of July Parade. The more typical stories on this year’s list are the return of soldiers from Kosovo and the launching of two memorial sporting events.

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The Tribune news staff hashed it out and through consensus determined these were the top 10.

1. Allegations of elder abuse

Rumors circulated the community in early May about some outrageous stuff happening at a local nursing home. The first story printed May 16, putting some facts to the rumors. It said the Albert Lea Police Department and the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office were looking into allegations of abuse at Good Samaritan Society of Albert Lea. The next story came in August, when the Minnesota Department of Health released the results of its investigation. It didn’t divulge names, but the report did share some gruesome details, at the same time exonerating the administration of the facility. That news circulated around the Midwest and even was mentioned by radio newsman Paul Harvey. It had the community shocked, and people waited and waited as the Freeborn County Attorney’s Office and the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office figured out how to proceed.

The big explosion finally came when the Freeborn County Attorney’s Office filed charges in November. Six former certified nursing assistants at the Good Samaritan Society nursing home in Albert Lea now face gross misdemeanor charges alleging abuse of 15 residents from January to May. Two of the young women, Brianna Broitzman and Ashton Larson, face adult criminal charges, and four others face juvenile charges because they were under 18 at the time.

It was far and away the leading news story in the Albert Lea area for 2008. It brought the attention of the national media, including the “Today” show on NBC. Tribune stories sometimes are picked up by the Associated Press and circulated through Minnesota or the Midwest, but these Tribune stories were printed and broadcast around the country. Even ordinary photos of the front of the Good Sam nursing home were distributed all over. It was easy to comprehend but hard to believe: Teenagers allegedly had emotionally, physically and sexually abused elderly people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. And allegedly laughing about it all.

The story had print and online readers debating the nature of elder care, about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, about the level of the charges, about the ages of the suspects, about the nature of teenagers and about feelings of the victims’ relatives. It attracted victims’ advocate Wes Bledsoe, and the story will continue to reverberate in 2009 as the wheels of the legal system move.

2. “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”

It was in the Tribune on Sept. 17: “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” is coming to Freeborn County. Al Larson, owner of Larson Contracting, had agreed to build a house for the show and now intended to garner an army of volunteers. The story set off the big question: Who was going to be the family that gets the new house?

After two weeks of wild speculation, including a pep rally, the answer was announced Sept. 30 at as the Dirk, Susan, April, Derik and Hanna DeVries family of Hayward Township. The TV show’s crew showed up to film show host Ty Pennington knocking on their door and talking to the family about their hardships. Dirk has one arm. Susan suffers from a heart condition, made worse by her home’s cold and damp environs. Media from around the region descended on their home to ask questions, and then the show sent them to Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada.

Larson Contracting and other volunteer companies and laborers had 106 hours to tear down the old house and build a new one. They did in about 100 hours. Crowds came to watch during the nice October weather to see the work and possibly catch a glimpse of Pennington. The TV filming crews and designers could be seen in Albert Lea, too. They shot the introductory scene at Skyline Plaza’s parking lot. They filmed many clips of downtown Albert Lea. The Green Mill was the nightly place to gather during the week of work. The film crews left, but the giving kept happening, including ethanol producers donating a truck and Waldorf College donating a full-ride scholarship.

When the show aired Dec. 7, the DeVrieses, the Larsons and many of the volunteers gathered at the Event Center at the Diamond Jo Casino in Northwood, Iowa, to watch. Many residents gathered around their TV sets that Sunday night, too, and they learned many surprises, such as the musical instruments Hallmark bought for the Hollandale Christian School, where Susan works, and some clips from the application video. Viewers saw how designers instilled the personalities of the family into the rooms, especially Derik’s love of duct tape.

Even when the DeVries family opened their home to visitors in December as a school fundraiser, it was news. Hundreds came through to see the spectacular-yet-cozy H-shaped home.

3. Floods and County 34 washout

A thunderstorm moved through Freeborn County shortly after midnight in the wee hours of June 12. The water table already was high from previous rains. To the south, Mason City, Iowa, was struggling just to have drinking water. A flood warning was issued at about 3 a.m. and by the time the rain let up later that morning the storm had dumped 3 to 5 inches of water on southeastern Freeborn County. Several portions of the roads in eastern Freeborn County were impassable because of high water, and Austin braced for floods. Many crops were washed away. An Oakland Township drainage ditch, which eventually pours into Orchard Creek in Mower County, had washed out a portion of Freeborn County Road 34.

The dispatch center received a call at 1:05 a.m. from a motorist who reported he was stuck in the washout. Authorities brought him to solid ground, and the man said his white Mazda was actually on top of another automobile. Albert Lea resident Dale Wangen was found dead at age 52 in his gray Ford Taurus. The police report states Wangen likely was headed south when the station wagon flew off the edge, striking the south embankment and plummeting into the swift water and submerging.

The Freeborn County Highway Department posted “road closed” barricades and orange mesh on both sides of the washout, and for weeks the county leaders assessed the damage, which ended up at $672,500. Freeborn County was one of four in Minnesota that President Bush labeled a major disaster area.

Then, at 1:35 a.m. Sunday, local medical personnel and Freeborn County sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to the washout. Two vehicles were found in the washout. One was a Chevy Avalanche sport-utility truck. All six occupants were injured and taken to Austin Medical Center. The southbound truck appeared to have driven around the barricades and into the washout. The other vehicle appeared to have been headed northbound. Its driver, Alex Kline of Lyle, was the sole occupant and was responding to the scene. Kline sustained minor injuries.

The community waited for word on the conditions of the passengers in the crash. All six were transferred to St. Marys Hospital in Rochester. There, on June 30, Myrtle mother of three Kelly Jo Abrego, at the age of 25, died. Albert Lean Kelly John Pechumer, 37, died July 3 at the same hospital. The others — (ages at the time of the crash) Charles Kenneth Dennison, 20, Albert Lea; Nathan James Buchli, 26, Albert Lea; Broc Marc Dempewolf, 22, Albert Lea; and Langdon Brooks Bachtle, 26, Myrtle — survived.

The sheriff’s report listed Dennison as the driver. It said all six had been drinking alcohol and were returning from a town festival in Lyle, taking a roundabout way to Myrtle. The report said Dennison’s blood-alcohol level two hours after the crash was 0.16. They had been drinking at the liquor store in Lyle, which is also a bar. Dennison faces 15 felony counts — really five charges applied three ways each because of various methods of proving drunkenness. He pleaded not guilty to the charges in October.

If he is convicted on three counts of criminal vehicular operation and two counts of criminal vehicular homicide, he potentially could face 29 years in prison and a $70,000 fine.

4. Elections

An African-American was elected president of the United States in a campaign that promised change. Many Americans, including residents of the Albert Lea area, never thought they would live to see the day an African-American was elected president. On Nov. 4, they did. Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president on Jan. 20.

On the local level, many Albert Lea residents who supported Mayor Randy Erdman were surprised to find challenger Mike Murtaugh had won the race. Erdman had campaigned on his experience, accomplishments and connections to the governor and other officials. However, he received a lot of criticism for changes he made to the council meetings and for the preagenda meeting. Murtaugh was critical of the city’s tax policies. He promised to open the public forum at the council meetings and to get rid of the preagenda meeting.

Erdman, a one-term mayor, thought people would recall his successes and didn’t campaign as thoroughly as Murtaugh, who said he wanted citizens to feel better about their city government.

DFL Congressman Tim Walz defeated Republican challenger Brian Davis to win a second term. DFL state Rep. Robin Brown beat Republican challenger Erik Larsen also to win a second term.

Freeborn County commissioners Jim Nelson and Glen Mathiason staved off challengers on Election Day. Linda Tuttle and Michael Lee ran a tight race for a vacant Commissioner District 3 seat, with Tuttle winning.

On the Albert Lea City Council, Ellen Kehr narrowly defeated Ryan Sabinish for the Ward 3 seat. In Ward 5, Larry Anderson’s opponent, David Montaño Sr., quit the race. Vern Rasmussen won his Ward 1 seat unopposed.

On the Albert Lea school board, Linda Laurie won a seat held by nine-year member Ken Petersen. He served as chairman for seven years and announced in August his intention to not seek re-election.

Alden found itself without a candidate for mayor after incumbent Brett Behnke announced — after the filing period was over — that he would not seek re-election. Jerry Reyerson launched a write-in candidacy and won.

Freeborn re-elected mayor Mark Gruben after a story on the day before the election about drug and alcohol charges he faced in Clay County, Iowa. The charges were dropped, but he was sentenced to unsupervised probation for drunken driving, which included losing his driver’s license for one year. He now faces a charge in Freeborn County for driving without his license. He pleaded not guilty Dec. 9 to the charge.

Statewide, voters approved amending Minnesota’s constitution to provide a dedicated funding stream for wildlife habitat, arts and culture and for trails and parks. They also voted in one of the hardest fought and most expensive Senate races in the country — and apparently the closest, too. The winner, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman or DFL challenger Al Franken, yet has to be determined.

5. Cleanup of Edgewater Park

The city accomplished a major goal in 2008: Begin cleaning up the old landfill beneath North Edgewater Park. It wasn’t easy.

The city approached state lawmakers in 2006. The Legislature granted the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency $3.5 million to perform the cleanup of the 30-acre site, which was a sand-and-gravel operation that became the city dump from 1956 to 1972. When it was closed, it was covered with lake sediment without a formal engineered closure. Contaminants were seeping into Fountain Lake.

When estimates came in higher than expected, the city realized it would need another $2.5 million. It was back to the state for help. Otherwise, the burden would be on local property taxes.

Several movers and shakers in Albert Lea deserve credit for making sure the governor, legislators, lobbyists and state staff understood just how much the Albert Lea community wanted the required funding to clean up the old landfill. The bonding bill in 2007 had failed to pass before the legislative deadline, and the bonding bill in 2008 had many statewide requests. Mayor Randy Erdman, City Manager Victoria Simonsen, Public Works Director Steve Jahnke, state Rep. Robin Brown, state Sen. Dan Sparks, former state Rep. Dan Dorman, several councilors and other officials were driving to St. Paul, calling St. Paul and writing to St. Paul to let people know. The Tribune’s Editorial Board pointed out how many request from other cities were for perks but Albert Lea sought a necessity.

On April 7, Gov. Tim Pawlenty slashed $208 million out of the $925 million authorization sent to his desk, bringing the bonding bill down to $717 million. Spared was the $2.5 million that Albert Lea sought for the Edgewater Park cleanup. City officials rejoiced.

Riverland Community College received $2.2 million for capital projects. Manchester and Myrtle also received bonding bill funding to assist wastewater treatment systems.

Work began on cleaning Edgewater Park in August, with major hauling starting in October. Trucks haul the waste from the park to an 11-acre composite-lined cell at the Albert Lea Transfer Center. A temporary road was built between the two sites, resulting in the closing of Richway Drive. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Don Abrams is the project manager for the cleanup.

6. High traffic fatalities

There were two traffic fatalities in Freeborn County in 2007. There were six in 2006, eight in 2004 and four in 2005. In 2008, there were 14 deaths.

Three of them occurred in June at the site of a washout on Freeborn County Road 34 in Oakland Township. A motorcycle hit a pickup in July on County Road 35, killing the biker. A mother inadvertently backed over her 3-year-old daughter on Main Street in Myrtle in December. A man died in a T-bone collision at the corner of County Roads 19 and 30 near the Bohemian National Cemetery.

Most of the fatalities happened on the interstate freeways. Freeborn County has more freeway mileage than any Minnesota county outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area. This year, the local emergency responders and the state troopers were busy heading to freeway wrecks.

Two fatalities happened in August as a result of a head-on collision on southbound Interstate 35 near the Iowa border after a pickup crossed the median and struck another pickup. One fatality happened in February after two cars collided near the intersection of Freeborn County roads 19 and 30. In April there was a crash at the interchange of Minnesota Highway 13 and Interstate 90. The driver of a Ford Freestar van was coming off the ramp from westbound I-90 and turning onto Highway 13 when she collided with a dump truck that was already on Highway 13. The driver of the van died.

An 8-year-old died in January after a crash on Interstate 35 two miles north of the Iowa border. On Veterans Day, a woman lost control of her 2004 Chevy Suburban on northbound I-35 near Exit 8 when it was broadsided by a 2005 Dodge truck. She perished in the collision.

An 80-year-old Nebraska man died in December when the 2000 Chevy pickup he was riding in lost control, entered a ditch and struck a tree on an icy part of I-35 west of Geneva. A Dodge pickup southbound on icy I-35 near Exit 11 slid through the median and struck a northbound Toyota van driven by a former Iowa legislator, which then spun into a northbound semi. The ex-legislator died in the wreck.

7. Closing of SoyMor and some retailers

Perhaps it is more noticeable to people when businesses close than when they open, because of the loss of jobs and the closings’ connections to the national story of the economic recession. Tribune readers were concerned when a string of retail store closings made news last summer. Consumers were writing letters asking people to shop locally.

In late June, Helen and Bruce Bunnell announced their doughtnut-and-coffee business, the Donut Hut, would close July 3. The local hangout had been around since 1974. It had been across the street but swapped places with Kwik Trip in 2002. The Donut Hut building this summer was sold to A-Best Sew & Vac, which as of the end of the year has not moved into the new location. Many coffee klatches had to find new places.

After an employee meeting at the Starbucks Coffee on Main Street, word leaked to the Tribune in early July that the store would close at the end of that month. It had been open since September 2004. The closing was part of a 7 percent reduction in Starbucks’ workforce slated for July through mid-2009. Many stores that closed were near freeways and new housing developments. The image-conscious company was hoping to turn its fortunes around by avoiding its stores being lumped in with fast-food freeway pit stops in the minds of consumers. Starbucks shuttered 27 stores in Minnesota, including the familiar I-35 stop in Faribault.

Cato Fashions closed in early August. It was the only location for that chain store in Minnesota but it wasn’t meeting company expectations. The nearest Cato Fashions is in Des Moines, Iowa.

Then Bath & Body Works in Northbridge Mall announced it would close at the end of August. Store sales across Limited Brands — which includes Victoria’s Secret, White Barn Candle Co. and CO Bigelow — reported a 9 percent decrease in the five weeks leading up to July 5 compared to the five weeks ending the same time last year.

SoyMor Biodiesel Board of Governors announced March 14 to suspend the production of soy-based biodiesel because of the high prices for soybean oil. The plant had been running less than 15 days per month during the previous four months. Thirty employees were without jobs. In March, chairman Gary Pestorious was optimistic the prices would decline and the plant would start again. High prices for soybean oil and a worsening economy have closed many biodiesel plants across the country. Many have not reopened, including SoyMor. Soybean oil prices need to go down or diesel prices need to go up so SoyMor to lock in a profit.

8. Return of D Company from Kosovo

Lt. Col. Kevin Olson of the Minnesota National Guard let the Tribune know that the Minnesota National Guard soldiers of D Company, 2nd Battalion, 135 Infantry Regiment were expected to arrive home July 10. The Family Readiness Group told the newspaper a parade was being planned. The Minnesota Patriot Guard asked the public to show support. Albert Lea residents heard the news and hopped on board.

The Albert Lea unit had a farewell ceremony in July 2007. The soldiers left from the Rochester airport for Atterbury, Ind. They spent two months of training there, then flew to Germany for another month of training before going to Kosovo, which was then considered an autonomous region of Serbia. They became part of the 400 soldiers of the Minnesota National Guard who served as NATO and U.N. peacekeepers for nine months. In February 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia without bloodshed, though not all countries recognized an independent Kosovo.

The 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment — Task Force Bayonet — is headquartered in Mankato and has units around the region.

When the buses from Fort McCoy, Wis., carrying soldiers of D Company finally turned off Interstate 90 and down Bridge Avenue, they were led by the Patriot Guard motorcycles and local police cars. People waved, flew flags and held up “welcome home” signs along the procession. The convoy came through the downtown and headed to the Albert Lea Armory. Many locals gathered outside the American Legion Hall. Family gathered in the Armory to meet their loved ones.

Capt. Eric Dinatale address the soldiers: “Delta Company, job well done,” he said. He thank them for their work and he thanked the families for their support. Then he dismissed the soldiers who finally could embrace their wives, husbands, sons, daughters, parents and other loved ones. It was a tearful moment for many people.

9. April Sorensen Half Marathon and Ryan Truesdell Memorial Softball Tournament

Many sports stories made the front page because of successes, but two in particular were sports events that were serious news with communitywide impacts. This year was the first year for two sports events that memorialized the deaths of two inspirational young people.

The April Sorensen Half Marathon, held July 12 during Hayward Days, was created to celebrate Sorensen’s life. The 27-year-old was murdered April 17, 2007, with blunt force in the home in Rochester she and her husband lived in. A fire burned the crime scene. Her killer has not been found. Her husband, Joshua Sorensen, was at work at the time of the homicide and is not a suspect.

April was an athlete at Albert Lea High School, playing volleyball and basketball, and she and her sister, Holly Larson, after college began running in marathons as a way to stay competitive. The theme was “Live, Laugh, Love, Run.” Holly, Joshua and other family members were amazed at the turnout. The 13.1-mile run drew 272 runners.

The half-marathon started at the Country Inn & Suites in Albert Lea, went along a portion of the Blazing Star Trail, then along South Shore Drive and then toward Hayward.

The inaugural Ryan Truesdell Memorial Softball Tournament took place Sept. 13, 14 and 15 at J.M. Snyder Field.

Truesdell, nicknamed “Pie,” was an Albert Lea High School graduate who died after he was trapped in a grain elevator in August 2007 at Glenville Grain. It was the 20-year-old’s last week on the job before he went back to school at Rochester Technical College, where he was studying physical education and health. He played softball three nights a week that summer.

Nineteen teams came together to participate in the softball tournament. Most of the teams comprised players who knew Truesdell, and the tournament was an opportunity for everyone to reminisce. The proceeds from the fundraiser supported area sports and the Arc of Freeborn County, an organization devoted to helping developmentally disabled people.

There was also a sand volleyball tournament, too, and a raffle. T-shirts were being sold and concessions. On Sept. 13, people enjoyed watching Albert Lea and Freeborn County employees play each other.

10. Rock throwing in parade

The Third of July Parade in 2007 was canceled soon after it began because of a brief-yet-angry thunderstorm. The Third of July Parade in 2008 looked like it was going to have perfect weather. Everyone was cheerful for the return of the city’s marquee parade.

It was unexpected that one rock could upset the fun and frivolity.

An entry came from Minnesota Coalition for Immigration Reduction had a large yellow sign with moveable letters, and it was pulled by a Hummer. The sign’s message on both sides said: “Illegal immigrants cost jobs, hospitals and courts.”

As the sign neared the corner of Bridge Avenue and Fountain Street, Hispanic teenage boys beamed rocks at it. One missed and hit a 62-year-old woman from Glenville in the chin, ricocheted and struck her collarbone. The rock, made of a chip of concrete, split in two.

The incident prompted much debate, in letters to the editor, on the street and in comments online. The husband of the victim said the parade organizers should disallow inflammatory messages in the parade. Parade organizers said there are guidelines given to applicant and the MCIR’s application gave no hint what its sign would say. When the parade started, the committee, which only had six people, didn’t have the time to inspect each entry. Committee members said more people are welcome to volunteer their time to assist with parade organizing. They also said they need to decide what to do in future parades about messages some spectators might consider inflammatory and to make more of an effort to have entries fit the parade theme.

The MCIR founder said any effort to alter the message would infringe on his free-speech rights and threatened to go to court if that happens in 2009. One letter writer called the sign “a hate message.” The Tribune editorialized that the free speech of a parade is in the hands of the parade organizers, not the entrants. One of the boys was cited with disorderly conduct.

And the rest …

Runner-ups for the list of top stories were:

Fights over the Albert Lea Lake dam.

Two new wind farms coming to Freeborn County.

ALEDA industrial park is ready for industry.

Mrs. Gerry’s to expand; Select Foods is expanding.

Civic Theatre renamed Marion Ross Performing Arts Center.

Artspace Projects researches Albert Lea.

Fountain Lake turns green, goes without treatment.

Progress made on Wedgewood Cove; regress made on Eagle’s Rest.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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