Top 10 news stories of 2010

Published 2:20 pm Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Storm chaser Michael Tillotson captured a June 17 tornado on camera and shared this image with the Albert Lea Tribune a week later. This tornado touched down as an EF4 one mile west northwest of Mansfield and headed in a northeasterly direction.

In an ordinary year, a homicide sentencing, the hiring of a city manager and the evacuation of a neighborhood most likely would be stories that make the top 10. In an ordinary year, a 200-megawatt wind farm would be the top story. In an ordinary year, there is a bad auto wreck on the list. But 2010 was no ordinary year.

In fact, most years, we look back and remark on how newsy the year had been. This year blows the others out of the water. The Albert Lea area seemed to have natural disasters and embroiled leaders in abundance in 2010. And it was an election year.

There is another point of interest: The top two stories broke within days of each other.

Here are the Top 10 stories from 2010.

1. Deadly tornadoes devastate countryside

Dates come and go, but June 17, 2010, is a date that will stay in the minds of many Albert Lea Tribune readers for a

A stretcher rests atop the devastation at the Kerry and Ada Graves farmhouse west of Albert Lea on June 17. -- Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune

generation. On that day, three thunderstorm cells produced tornadoes that devastated farms and homes in Faribault, Freeborn and Steele counties, including an EF4 tornado that killed a woman near Armstrong.

That same day, tornadoes touched down in northern Minnesota, hitting Wadena. In all, Minnesota had 25 tornadoes on one day, two of them reaching EF4 status. In August, after piecing together what happened, the National Weather Service announced: “June 17, 2010, will go down as the day with the greatest single-day tornado total in Minnesota history.”

The deadly one landed as an EF4 one mile northwest of Mansfield and headed in a northeasterly direction. It struck the rural home of Ron and Kathy Woodside, killing her and severely injuring him. Both were Tribune employees.

The photographs of the no-man’s land were striking. Homes, trees, cars, barns all smashed. Structures were completely off their foundation. Farm animals wandered free. People climbed out of their basements to find a devastated countryside. Tiny Armstrong was the only named place to get a direct hit. Other tornadoes came near Kiester, Conger, Albert Lea, Clarks Grove, Geneva, Hollandale, Lerdal, Alden, Freeborn, Ellendale, Beaver Lake and Hope.

The outpouring of support for tornado victims was remarkable. People came from across the region to remove debris from fields, clean up destroyed acreages, feed and shelter others and give comfort. And the countryside was filled with motorists who sought to tour the damage. Everyone in the Albert Lea Tribune coverage area has a story of where they were that evening. And nearly everyone has a story of how they helped in the days that followed.

Minnesota ended up leading the nation in tornadoes for 2010, with 145. It typically sees 27 a year. Texas was second with 105. Iowa was 11th with 52.

2. Commissioner Linda Tuttle charged with theft

Who could have imagined?

Albert Lea Abstract shut its doors to the public sometime between 11 a.m. and noon June 22. Albert Lea and state investigators hauled files and computers to a truck for evidence. People who showed up for realty meetings were greeted by a closed sign. -- Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune

In 2008, voters in Freeborn County Commissioner District 5 showed their confidence in Albert Lea businesswoman Linda Tuttle by electing her to the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners. She was a former county recorder and owned Albert Lea Abstract Co.

Then on June 22 — coincidentally only days after the region suffered tornado devastation — investigators with the Minnesota Division of Insurance Fraud Prevention and the Albert Lea Police Department parked a U-Haul truck outside of her business and, with search warrants in hand, loaded her files and computers into the truck. Signs said “closed” and clients with appointments were denied entry and answers.

On June 24, she stood before Freeborn County District Court Judge Steven Schwab in a green jumpsuit — the color given to female inmates of the Freeborn County jail — to hear that she faced one felony count of theft for about $48,000. Real estate agents, local lawyers, law enforcement officers and her husband sat in the gallery to watch the court proceeding. The police investigation alleges that between January and June of this year she took from six bank accounts to deal with her gambling debt at the Diamond Jo Casino seven miles west of Northwood, Iowa. The means by which she reportedly took the funds is called check kiting.

Her casino card revealed that from February 2008 to June 2010, she played $2.4 million on slot machines, getting a little more than $2 million in payouts, leaving her $309,000 in the hole.

By July 1, the members of the Humane Society of Freeborn County learned bad news. The $150,000 that an anonymous donor gave the organization for construction of an addition to the animal shelter would most likely be gone for good. It had been in an escrow account with Albert Lea Abstract Co. The Humane Society spent the remainder of the year doing fundraisers to make up for the loss.

On July 19, Tuttle again stood in court to hear 13 new charges, including racketeering and felony theft by swindle through her title company. The alleged theft grew to more than $1 million.

Freeborn County commissioners received a letter July 21 from Tuttle saying her resignation would be effective Aug. 1.

Tuttle’s lawyer, Kevin O’Connor Green, of Mankato, confirmed in November that he and the Steele County Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the case, were working on a settlement.

3. September floods inundate region

With waters rising in New Richland, men, women, boys and girls help fill sandbags the afternoon of Sept. 23 near the New Richland Care Center as the residents battled rising waters in many places near a creek that flows through the city. -- Michelle Haacke/Albert Lea Tribune

Wet weather greeted students on the first day of school. Little did the parents, students or teachers who participate in this annual ceremony know that it wasn’t going to stop. In fact, 6 inches of rain fell in two days, Sept. 22 and 23. Albert Lea in September received 9.7 inches, when it averages 3.5 in that month.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty declared a state of emergency for the counties of Blue Earth, Brown, Faribault, Freeborn, Goodhue, Le Sueur, Martin, Nicollet, Rice, Steele, Waseca, Watonwon and the southern parts of Scott and Dakota. Pawlently activated the National Guard, and he toured Truman, Pine Island and Owatonna. Schools in Wells, Alden and New Richland let out early. Interstate 35 and several highways and byways closed in the region.

Many country roads were flooded. In Freeborn County, about 30 roads had flooding problems, with many closed with barricades, such as County Road 20 near the junction with County Road 24 northeast of Bath on the Steele County line. It was ruled impassable. Several boats on Fountain Lake escaped their moorage. Lake patrol officer Matt Levorson of the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office had to round them up and take them to City Beach. Katherine Island was submerged. Fish were pushed up and out of the parking-lot drain at McDonald’s.

All of Fountain Lake’s Katherine Island but the bridge landing is under water on Sept. 24. -- Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune

New Richland residents filled sandbags to prevent a tributary of Boot Creek from flooding parts of the city. Residents of the New Richland Care Center nursing home were evacuated Sept. 22, with their building sustaining $320,000 in flood damages. Parks were completely immersed under water. The basement of Trapper’s Lanes became a pool. Other New Richland businesses were hit hard, too.

Waseca Fire Chief Gary Conrath estimated about 50 volunteers and 30 area fire personnel had pitched in to help with the efforts. Trucks hauled in sand. People came from Geneva and other nearby places.

Ellendale, Wells, Alden, Albert Lea and Austin all had their flood problems. Sewers backed up. Water spouted out of manhole covers. Some basements had leaks. Some filled with water. Parks, streets and lowlands were under water. Ellendale looked like it had a river right through town.

After insurance, grants, sweat equity and a can-do spirit, the New Richland Care Center reopened in December.

4. Two big T-storms in a row

A tree broke in two during the severe thunderstorms of June 24 and 25. It was one of many trees big and small around Albert Lea that fell that weekend. -- Scott Schmeltzer/Albert Lea Tribune

A week and a day after the deadliest storm hit Freeborn County, a severe thunderstorm brought hail and high winds to Albert Lea. Then the next night, another storm brought more hail and high winds. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Trees were damaged. Branches were in the streets. Power lines were down. A sunroom of one house in Albert Lea was blown right off. A tornado was reported to have gone over Wells, and power lines were down there, too, along with trees and power lines in many cities. For Albert Lea, it was straight-line winds.

The severe thunderstorms occured on June 24 and 25, a Friday and a Saturday. The headline in the following Monday paper said “Enough!” People wondered what sort of madness would come from the sky next.

The Albert Lea City Council waived the fee for brush removal and allowed people to bring their branches to a big pile at the Blazing Star Landing.

Through the summer and fall, the impact of the storms became more clear, as roofers who weren’t doing work for tornado victims were busy working for homeowners in Albert Lea who needed new roofs as a result of the late June storms.

The summer continued to be humid and stormy, even with a tornado watch occuring in September. Many crops suffered storm damage. Then fall brought floods, but then fall brought some of the best outdoors weather of the year.

5. Bent Tree Wind Farm goes up

A Manitowoc crane lifts a wind turbine’s rotor to the top of its tower. The rotor-placing process only takes about 15 minutes, Alliant Energy senior safety manager Tom Moravec said. -- Ashley Stewart/Albert Lea Tribune

Weeks after tornadoes changed the landscape in the Hartland-Manchester area of Freeborn County, Alliant Energy and contractor Barnhart Crane changed it once again when it began erecting a 200-megawatt wind farm. Summer and fall were busy on the rural roads northwest of Albert Lea. The goal was to complete the wind farm in spring of 2011.

The numbers tell the story. There were 300 workers in the area at the height of construction and 200 otherwise. The turbines are Vestas V82 and 1.65 megawatts. This wind farm project will amount to 200 megawatts, which can power approximately 50,000 homes. The total weight of each turbine is more than 350,000 pounds. There will be 26 miles of access roads built in the county. The construction area covers 69 square miles. The project has 122 turbines. The height with one blade straight up is 397 feet. The bases are 74 feet tall and weigh more than 100,000 pounds. The blades are 131 feet long. The price tag: $400 million.

A crane with Barnhart Crane & Rigging steadies a section of a tower in August during installation of the Bent Tree Wind Farm. -- Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune

The pedestal of each turbine is 15 feet deep and is cone-shaped in the ground. The largest part is 60 feet in diameter, and the entire pedestal has about 500 cubic yards of concrete, or enough to fill about 50 concrete trucks. The main crane erecting the turbines is more than 1 million pounds and has a 440-ton maximum lifting capacity.

Alliant Energy also built two new operations buildings for the wind farm workers on the east side of Minnesota Highway 13 in Hartland. There will be about 20 full-time workers there once the wind farm is finished.

One story of note during the construction happened Sept. 16, when a flatbed semitrailer hauling section of a Vestas wind turbine tower slipped into a shallow ditch of a gravel road. The gravel roads in southern Minnesota were saturated after heavy rains in mid-September.

The truck was carrying the large tower section on gravel 695th Avenue north of Freeborn County Road 29 near West Freeborn Lutheran Church. It fell off near a turn in the road.

6. Broitzman, Larson sentenced to jail

Freeborn County Attorney Craig Nelson speaks to the news media Oct. 22 at the Freeborn County Courthouse after he met with members of the families of the victims in the elder abuse case. --Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune

Two of eight certified nursing assistants in the three-year-old elder abuse case were charged as adults because they were older than 18 at the time of the crimes that

happened at Good Samaritan Society — a case that attracted national attention when it first came to light in August 2008. Four were charged as juveniles, and two weren’t charged. Both Brianna Broitzman and Ashton Larson struck plea deals in 2010 for their actions between January and May in 2008, sexually, physically and verbally taunting the vulnerable adults in their care at the nursing home.

Freeborn County District Judge Steve Schwab sentenced Broitzman in October and Larson in December.

Broitzman was sent to serve 60 days in jail right away — though she was able to get out after two-thirds of that time because of good behavior. Then she has to serve another 60 days starting May 22, 2011, and yet abother 60 days Oct. 22, 2011.

Myrna Sorensen of Alden speaks to the news media about the sentencing of Ashton Larson, convicted of abusing helpless elderly patients in her care, on Dec. 22 at the Freeborn County Courthouse. Sorensen is a family member of one of the victims. -- Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune

She can petition to waive the second two jail terms in writing 30 days prior to the start of each term depending on if she follows guidelines and is deemed suitable for probation. In other words, she could potentially only serve the first term.

Schwab also sentenced Broitzman — who was convicted of three counts of disorderly conduct by a caregiver, all gross misdemeanors — to eight days of community service for each count, two of which must be served each month.

She is required to complete a psychological assessment, submit letters of apology to the families of the three victims in the case, complete one-on-one education with ElderCare Rights Alliance and meet with the victims’ families if they so choose to answer questions.

In addition, she can have no direct or indirect contact with vulnerable adults unless she gets the prior approval of her probation agent and cannot be employed as a caregiver for the time of her probation.

Larson received the same sentence, serving jail immediately and missing Christmas with her family. Her next 60 days will begin July 22, 2011, and the third 60 days will begin Dec. 22, 2011.

7. City manager allegedly abused city funds

Then-Albert Lea City Manager Jim Norman works at his desk at City Hall on May 3, his first day as full-time city manager. He had completed his duties as the interim city administrator in Afton. -- Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

This one could top the list in terms of what was strange, and therefore it is somewhat difficult to summarize. The trial is slated for Jan. 11, so more facts are on the way.

For now, let’s review the twists and turns:

Unable to strike a deal on pay with Alan Lanning of Pines North, Colo., the Albert Lea City Council on March 24 struck a deal to hire Afton City Administrator Jim Norman as the new Albert Lea city manager at a starting annual salary of $95,000. He began part-time April 12 and full-time May 3.

On Aug. 9, the City Council members met in a special meeting to review allegations concerning the use of the city credit card during Norman’s relocation to Albert Lea.

The charges were filed in Freeborn County District Court on Aug. 26. The Waseca County Attorney’s Office, which is handling the case for Freeborn County, charged the 56-year-old city manager with two felonies and one gross misdemeanor for what amounted to about $2,300 in purchases. The Waseca Police Department performed the investigation.

Among the purchased items were a side-by-side refrigerator, groceries, shoes for his wife and hotel stays. He also received a monthly per diem for an automobile but allegedly bought gas with the card anyway. The investigation claimed Norman had financial problems, including bad credit, based on the financial director Rhonda Moen’s comments to investigators.

On Aug. 27, Norman was placed on paid leave. On Sept. 1, the search firm’s founder reiterated that Norman has good credit. For several weeks, people debated exactly what happened, some saying the city department heads wanted to oust their new boss, some saying Norman was caught red-handed, others saying the council acted too swiftly for a mere new-to-the-job error and Norman trying to communicate that it had been an honest mistake. He went public and claimed he was “broadsided” by the council and city officials.

By the end of the September, the City Council and Norman severed their relationship, including the city requesting to drop the charges. The prosecutor, however, had no intentions to stop prosecuting the case.

Moen left. On Oct. 25 began her new job as finance director for Owatonna. The council hired an interim city manager on Nov. 22. On Nov. 29, Norman pleaded not guilty to the charges, invoking his right to a speedy trial.

8. Election produces new officials

House District 27A candidate Rich Murray looks over election results Nov. 2 with supporters Keith Fligge and Paul Overgaard. Murray won the election against incumbent District 27A Rep. Robin Brown, but because the results were so close, there was an automatic recount. -- Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

While many local seats in the Nov. 2 election went uncontested, the races that had competition provided upsets. Two elected officials who each had won two times prior lost.

Career law-enforcement officer Mark Harig won elections in 2002 and 2006 for Freeborn County sheriff but lost to the office’s detective supervisor, Bob Kindler. Harig intends to retire when leaving office in January.

Albert Lea High School art teacher Robin Brown won elections in the House District 27A seat in 2006 and 2008. She lost on Election Day by 57 votes to financial adviser Rich Murray. The Republican retook a seat his party had kept secure for a couple of decades before Democrat Brown held it for four years. Brown intends to focus on teaching. She said she cannot close the door on a future in politics.

The difference in the District 27A race was within half of 1 percent, forcing a state-mandated recount.

Dave Nolander shakes the hand of Bob Kindler, who was elected sheriff Nov. 2. Between them is Gene Peters and on the right is Ken Peters. -- Michelle Haacke/Albert Lea Tribune

Election Day also brought other changes. Minnesota elected a new governor; Democrat Mark Dayton defeated Republican Tom Emmer and IP candidate Tom Horner. The margin between Dayton and Emmer also was close enough to require a recount. The recount for both races took place Nov. 29, and no initial outcome changed.

Albert Lea elected a new mayor. Vern Rasmussen was victorious over Mike Murtaugh, who was on the ballot but had withdrawn from campaigning. Rasmussen was sworn into office Nov. 10, becoming the city’s seventh mayor in the years 2000-2010.

Democrats Dan Sparks and Tim Walz had challengers but managed to remain in office, in spite of sweeping wins by Republicans for seats in St. Paul and Washington. Sparks, state senator for District 27, defeated former Austin school board member Kathy Green, and Walz, representative for the 1st District of Minnesota, beat state Rep. Randy Demmer of Hayfield.

9. Mayor’s wife dies; mayor resigns

Geri Murtaugh

On Sept. 16, Albert Lea Mayor Mike Murtaugh tendered his resignation via e-mail to city staff. A city news release the next day said his resignation would be effective Sept. 19. A week earlier, Murtaugh had suspended his campaign for re-election.

There were two major reasons why his stepped down from the office and the campaign: He wanted to spend more time raising daughters Erin and Tierney in the wake of his wife’s passing.

Geri Murtaugh, the assistant editor at the Albert Lea Tribune, died Aug. 7 at a Rochester hospital following a battle with cancer. Having successfully fought off breast cancer two years ago, she had recently been diagnosed with cancer in her spine, pelvis, liver and brain. She had been at the hospital for a little over two weeks. She died on her 24th anniversary of working at the Tribune.

She used her maiden name, McShane, for her byline. She could often be found writing stories about arts, entertainment, religion and even other people similar to herself who were battling cancer or illness. She handled a large share of the pagination responsibilities, and a lot of her work entailed taking submitted material from readers — check passings, engagement announcements, event briefs and such — and getting them into print.

Mike Murtaugh garnered more votes than Vern Rasmussen and John Severtson in the Aug. 10 primary election. Murtaugh and Rasmussen advanced to the general election. Rasmussen won on Nov. 2, becoming mayor the next week.

Murtaugh said that if he had won in November, he would not have accepted the position.

10. Missing man Jon Weiland found deceased

Jon Weiland

“Where is Jon Weiland?” asked the Albert Lea Tribune in a headline on Sunday, April 11. A story by reporter Sarah Stultz rekindled interest among the public in finding a 43-year-old man from Britt, Iowa, who had not been seen in three months.

He was last seen at Rathai’s Roadhouse Bar & Grill in Walters on the night of Dec. 19, 2009. Signs around the area still asked about him, but otherwise the search for him by authorities had been dropped. The story was reprinted April 12 in the Mason City Globe-Gazette. On April 13, Weiland’s body was found.

Rose Villela of Thompson, Iowa, saw something red in a wooded area a mile north of Thompson. She went to the grocery store in town, remembered the story she had read, then decided she should meet her son at the location of the trees. They found Weiland’s body a distance from his red 2002 Dodge Dakota pickup.

Weiland likely was traveling southbound on R34 when he left the road on a curve. He apparently lost control and hit several trees.

The family of Jon Weiland sent a letter to the Tribune, thanking the newspaper for its role in helping to find the man and to everyone who took time to search for him.

Britt Mayor David Mitchell said though the news of Weiland’s death was a “tragedy for the entire community,” everyone could move forward.

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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