Rapes, school bond top local news in 2013

2013-12-29T00:00:00Z 2014-09-24T09:34:57Z Rapes, school bond top local news in 2013Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
December 29, 2013 12:00 am  • 
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  • A string of home invasion rapes terrified Billings residents for months, Montana's senior U.S. senator decided not to run for re-election, and comments made by a District Court judge during sentencing in a rape case caused an uproar.

    Billings voters approved K-8 general fund and tech levies in May and returned to the polls in November to pass a $122 million bond that will build three new schools.

    Two local officials found themselves under fire for comments made in the courtroom and via email, and a tire company based in Washington state bought the asbestos-filled former federal courthouse with plans to rent it out as office space.

    Those are among the stories that topped local news coverage in 2013. Here is a closer look at those stories and others that filled the news pages this past year.

  • There were nearly as many fatal officer-involved shootings in Yellowstone County in 2013 as the previous eight years combined. Dating back to 2005, the county saw six such incidents while there were four in a span of just seven months in 2013.

    On Jan. 6, Billings Police Department Officer Dave Punt fatally shot Daniel Brawley as he tried to flee in Punt's patrol car after he was arrested in the wake of a three-hour standoff stemming from a burglary investigation.

    On Feb. 11, Jason James Shaw was shot and killed by BPD Officer Grant Morrison. He shot Shaw once as Shaw reached for a gun, which investigators later found out was a replica BB gun.

    On May 17, two Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office deputies fatally shot Thomas Hilger. They had responded to a bar in the Worden area and one of them, Martin Stuart, shot Hilger as he reached for a gun. They later found the body of Hilger's girlfriend, 22-year-old Erica Yurian, in a nearby vehicle. At a coroner's inquest, witness testimony and evidence presented indicated that Hilger shot and killed Yurian.

    Finally, on July 5, Sheriff's Sgt. Shane Skillen shot and killed Dean Randolph Jess, a Montana State Prison escapee, near a busy West End shopping area. Officials said Jess refused to come out of the stolen vehicle he was driving and had reached for a gun.

    Coroner's inquests determined the first three shootings were justified, while an inquest into Jess' death has not yet been scheduled.

  • On April 23, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., confirmed that he won’t run for re-election in 2014.

    In December, President Barack Obama nominated Baucus to be the U.S. ambassador to China. Gov. Steve Bullock will appoint someone to serve the rest of Baucus' Senate term.

    Baucus' exit opens up the field to other prospective candidates. Three Democrats — Wilsall rancher Dirk Adams, former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger and current Lt. Gov. John Walsh — and three Republicans — U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., state Rep. Champ Edmunds of Missoula, and Kalispell air traffic manager David Leaser have entered the race.

    Baucus was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978 after serving in the U.S. House from the western district for four years and two years in the Montana House of Representatives.

    Highlights of Baucus' congressional career include being the chief sponsor of Clean Air Act, serving as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, helping shepherd through President George W. Bush's first round of income tax cuts in 2001, and helping write President Barack Obama's health care reform law. He also was an advocate for Libby residents after news reports linked asbestos contamination from a vermiculite mine to deaths and illnesses.

  • Robert Eric Bottenhagen and Zaccary John Kern, both 21, were charged April 23 with four counts each of negligent homicide. They are accused of starting a fire at a Lockwood mobile home that killed four people.

    The fire at 206 Hemlock Road was reported shortly after 4 a.m. on April 18. Lockwood firefighters entered the house and found four bodies inside while putting out the blaze. The victims were Amber-Marie Beyers, 33; Donavon Fogle, 25; Brandi Hansen Moats, 25; and Troy Saylor, 28, all of Billings. Autopsies determined all four died of smoke inhalation.

    In charging documents, prosecutors said that night of drinking preceded to the deaths.

  • The NOVA Center for the Performing Arts celebrated its grand reopening on May 11 with champagne and free performances by opera singers and Venture Theatre performers.

    The opening showcased the collaborative effort between Rimrock Opera Company and Venture Theatre to create a new performing arts center. Venture’s financial struggles were revealed in January, leading to the collaboration when ROC stepped in to pledge money and pitch the idea of working together.

    The Venture Theatre capital campaign brought in $125,000 in four months and allowed Venture to pay off the IRS and the city of Billings and get current on payments to the building’s owner Mike Schaer.

  • Convicted murderer Barry Beach returned to Montana State Prison on May 15 to finish serving a 100-year sentence after the Montana Supreme Court reversed a ruling by a judge in Lewistown that Beach deserved a new trial for the 1979 slaying of 17-year-old Kimberly Nees.

    Judge E. Wayne Phillips ruled in November 2011 that there was sufficient evidence presented by Beach at a hearing that he was wrongfully convicted. Phillips released Beach on Dec. 7, 2011, from the prison in Deer Lodge, where he had served nearly 30 years of his sentence.

    State prosecutors appealed the ruling, and in a 4-3 vote the state's high court said there was not sufficient evidence to order a retrial. The Supreme Court on June 21 rejected Beach's request to reconsider the decision.

    Nees, 17, was bludgeoned to death and her body thrown into the Poplar River on June 16, 1979. Her murder remained under investigation until 1983, when Beach, a former classmate, was arrested in Louisiana and confessed to the killing. Beach later recanted the confession, saying he was coerced by detectives in Louisiana who were investigating other unsolved murders of young women.

  • On Aug. 13 and 14, three elderly women were assaulted in their homes during two similar attacks.

    A 76-year-old woman was assaulted and robbed at about 12:40 a.m. on Aug. 13 in her 11th Street West home, and two retired nuns of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth suffered serious injuries during an attack the next night. Sister Mary Vincentia Maronick, 90, and Sister Clara Scherr, 79, told police they were assaulted and robbed in their home on Gregory Drive South at about 2:45 a.m. Both attacks involved two men.

    Christopher Samuel Pine is so far the only person charged in the crimes. Pine pleaded not guilty to three counts of robbery, three counts of deceptive practices and one count of intimidation. He also denied misdemeanor charges of tampering with a communication device and possessing drug paraphernalia.

  • Toby Eugene Griego was charged in a string of home-invasion rapes, an attempted rape and robberies that took place between the end of January and first week of July. The six attacks struck fear in the community for months.

    Griego was charged in three rapes and one attempted rape. He is a suspect in at least two other similar attempted rapes.

    In each case, Griego is accused of entering the residence of a young woman as she was sleeping. The women were bound, beaten and raped with foreign objects. Two of the victims were taken to ATMs to withdraw money, court documents say. All three rape victims said their attacker forced them to bathe after the assaults. Prosecutors said Griego stalked the victims before the attacks.

    The felony charges include 10 counts of sexual intercourse without consent, one count of attempted sexual intercourse without consent, six counts of robbery, four counts of aggravated kidnapping, two counts of aggravated assault, eight counts of surreptitious visual observation or recording, three counts of drug possession, two counts of intimidation, and one count of assault with a weapon.

    Griego is also charged with two counts of misdemeanor surreptitious visual observation or recording and one misdemeanor count of drug possession. Prosecutors say Griego took cellphone pictures of the victims and possessed numerous prescription medications when he was arrested on Aug. 23 at his residence.

    Griego has pleaded not guilty; trial has been set for early January.

    If convicted of any of the rape charges, Griego would face a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole because of a prior sexual offense conviction in New Mexico, court records say.

  • Yellowstone County Treasurer Max Lenington came under fire when a Billings Gazette public information request showed that he used his government email account to send racist and bigoted messages and to conduct personal business with a motorcycle purchase.

    The information request was made after Lenington was accused of plagiarizing a letter to the editor in which he detailed why he hates the Obamas.

    Lenington, who also is the county’s assessor and superintendent of schools, has responded to calls for his resignation by saying he will retire at the end of his term in 2014. He started working in county government in 1969, earns $90,054 a year and supervises about 25 people.

    An investigation by the County Attorney's Office found that Lenington's conduct is not grounds for a recall.

    In a Nov. 13, 2012, email from his government account, Lenington said that President Barack Obama must have been re-elected because “…there are more lesbians, queers, Indians, Mexicans and n— than the rest of us!” (The Gazette has chosen not to completely reproduce the word Lenington used.)

    Lenington apologized for using the “N-word” and blamed the controversy over his words on “the liberal left-wing news media,” which he accused of “purposely and intentionally deceiving us and not telling the truth” about Obama. He accused news media of trying to censor his First Amendment rights regarding his emails.

    The investigation also turned up more than 30 messages detailing negotiations for the purchase of an $11,000 customized Triumph motorcycle from an Iowa dealer. Those emails were sent between Oct. 18, 2012, and Jan. 24, 2013.

  • On Aug. 26, Yellowstone County District Judge G. Todd Baugh sparked outrage when he sentenced former teacher Stacey Dean Rambold, convicted of raping a 14-year-old student who later committed suicide, to spend 30 days in jail.

    Baugh sentenced Rambold to 15 years in prison, with all but 31 days suspended, for sexual intercourse without consent. Rambold received credit for one day served.

    Baugh said he listened to recorded statements given by Morales before her death and believes that while she was a troubled youth, she was "as much in control of the situation" as Rambold. The judge also said Morales was "older than her chronological age."

    The judge's statements were picked up by numerous national and international news organizations and sparked outrage among many people, including the Montana chapter of the National Organization for Women.

    A petition seeking Baugh's resignation was circulated, and an Aug. 29 protest drew hundreds of people to the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn. Crews from "Good Morning America," CNN and Fox News were there.

    Two days after the sentencing, Baugh issued an apology for his comments, calling them "just stupid and wrong."

    Rambold entered into a deferred prosecution agreement in 2010 with the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office when the girl's death caused problems for prosecutors. Under the agreement, the charges would be dismissed if Rambold completed a sex offender treatment program and complied with other conditions. The case was revived last December, when prosecutors learned that Rambold had been terminated from the sex offender treatment program.

    Baugh said he was not convinced that the reasons for Rambold's termination from treatment were serious enough to warrant the lengthy prison term suggested by the prosecution.

  • On Nov. 5, Billings voters approved $122 million construction bond for School District 2.

    The bond is the school district's plan to cope with steadily growing enrollment, overcrowded classrooms and rapidly aging facilities. It will pay for two new middle schools and the staff to operate them. It will also go toward remodeling, refurbishing and renovating SD2's elementary schools, including McKinley and Broadwater.

    Officials have secured property in the Heights and on the West End for the construction of two new middle schools to join the four middle schools that the district already operates. The six middle schools will house all the district's sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. Making that move will pull sixth-graders from all the district's elementary schools, creating more space there for the younger, growing student body.

    Billings voters also approved a K-8 general fund levy and a technology levy in May.

  • The Billings Public Library closed its doors Dec. 13 to make way for the new library, which opens Jan. 6. Dedication ceremonies are planned for Feb. 1.

    Billings voters in 2011 approved a $16 million bond to build the new library, which was designed by architect Will Bruder of Phoenix with local work by O2 Architects. The bond is supplemented with $5 million in private funds raised by the library foundation.

    The current library was built in 1955 as a hardware store and parts warehouse. It was below code requirements in numerous areas and needed improvements to the heating, cooling and electrical systems, among other deficiencies.

    The new two-story, 65,000-square-foot library will have a children’s area double the size of the existing one, 50 computer stations, an expanded teen room, a coffee shop, a public meeting room opening onto an outdoor courtyard and restrooms on each floor, plus separate family restrooms in the children’s area.

  • The U.S. Senate on Dec. 12 confirmed two nominees for federal judgeships in Montana — Susan Watters for district judge in Billings and Brian Morris for district judge in Great Falls.

    The long-awaited confirmations end a judicial emergency in the state created by vacancies in two of the state’s three judgeships.

    Watters, 55, who has served as a state district judge in Billings for 15 years, becomes the first woman in Montana to be appointed as a U.S. district court judge. She replaces retired U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull.

    Morris, 50, a Montana Supreme Court justice since 2005, will replace Senior U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon.

  • Academy Award-winning director Alexander Payne's black-and-white comedy, "Nebraska," arrived in Billings theaters on Dec. 20.

    A cast and crew of more than 100 people were involved in five days of filming in Billings and Laurel in November and early December 2012. The film stars Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb. Dern plays Woody Grant, who travels to Nebraska from Billings to pick up a $1 million sweepstakes prize.

    Retired Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Capt. Dennis McCave has a small speaking role in the movie; he is featured in the film's trailer. And Robin and Kevin Schwartzkopf’s 1940s home in Laurel served as the home of Dern's character, Woody.

    The film has been nominated for four Golden Globe Awards and there is buzz in the industry that there may be Academy Award nominations as well.

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