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Here’s a look at some of the big news of 2009 in The Billings Gazette’s circulation area:

January

• Kacy Joy Laingen of Shepherd is charged in District Court with vehicular homicide for the death of her 10-year-old daughter, MacKenzie Reffalt.

Prosecutors allege Laingen, 37, was driving drunk when she lost control of her minivan on Scandia Road. The girl was ejected when the van rolled, and she died at the scene. Laingen had a blood-alcohol level of 0.13 percent, prosecutors said. Her case is pending.

• A 26-year-old Texas man pleads not guilty in District Court to two counts of vehicular homicide for the deaths of a Missoula couple.

Prosecutors allege Corey Jay Brooks was driving drunk on Interstate 90 near Zoo Drive when his pickup truck crossed the median and struck a car head-on. David Hanson, 55, and Janice Thomas, 56, were killed.

In December, he is found guilty of negligent homicide.

• A man opens fire in the parking lot of Glasgow’s Frances Mahon Deaconess Hospital, killing 37-year-old Melissa Greenhagen.

Two people who come to her aid — Scott and Suzanne Billingsley — are wounded. The gunman, 44-year-old Roger Sellers, is killed about seven hours later by officers who tracked him through the snow.

• Longtime Republican leader and former Yellowsstone County Clerk of District Court Charmaine Fisher dies.

A community activitist and master gardener, she was a Ronald Reagan delegate to the 1976 and 1980 Republicaan National Conventions and volunteered in many programs, including ones focused on reading and learning.

• Marine Sgt. Trevor Johnson, of Colstrip, is killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

• memorial held for him Feb. 7 on        his family’s ranch southeast of Forsyth turns into much more than that, with a           motorcade of mourners almost two miles long and nearly 1,000 people attending, including Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

The services draw people from all across Eastern Montana, as well as Marines who served with Johnson, and they are covered by news organizations around the region.

It is an emotional, powerful event, highlighted by a teary speech from his widow, Nikki.

• Twenty-five-year-old Emily Marie James pleads guilty to mitigated deliberate homicide and felony tampering for the stabbing death of her boyfriend, Seth Drinkwalter.

James says the stabbing happened during a heated argument at the couple’s apartment on Second Avenue South. She later is sentenced to 35 years at Montana Women’s Prison with five years suspended.

 

February

 

• Crow Chairman Carl Venne, 62, who had just begun his second full term in office, dies of natural causes.

Venne was first elected chairman in 2002 to complete a partial term and then was elected to a full term in 2004 and re-elected in November 2008. A funeral for Venne on Feb. 19 in Crow Agency is attended by more than 1,000 people, including Montana’s two U.S. senators and the state’s top leaders.

Venne is praised by Sen. Max Baucus for being “a tireless advocate for the Crow nation.”

• Jerry Lindau appears in Justice Court on accusations that he molested two 4-year-old girls at a Billings home day care on Henesta Drive.

Lindau, 62, is charged with four counts of rape and three counts of sexual assault. Two weeks later, county jail officers find Lindau unconscious in his cell, and efforts to revive him fail.

A coroner’s inquest determines he died of heart failure.

• The Christian rock scene heats up with shows by Kutless in February, MercyMe in March and Jars of Clay in November.

• Few bison migrate out of Yellowstone National Park this winter, meaning a drastic decline in the slaughter of the animals. In 2008, about one-quarter of the herd was slaughtered after moving out of the park.

 

March

 

• On March 5, an explosion caused by a natural-gas leak leads to the death of one woman and the destruction of half a city block in downtown Bozeman.

Strangely, the disaster is followed the next day by an explosion and fire that destroys two businesses and damaged two others in Whitehall.

On March 23, fire destroys three-quarters of a downtown block in Miles City.

• The Babcock Theater reopens as a performing arts venue with a St. Patrick’s program. Through the rest of the year, a steady batch of live shows comes through, including a rowdy Railroad Earth show in August.

• A Carbon County judge dismisses the murder charge against Bianca Wilson, the Billings woman twice charged with killing 30-year-old Justin Marchant in 2004.

In a written order, District Judge Blair Jones says prosecutors violated Wilson’s right to a speedy trial. Wilson was charged shortly after the killing, but prosecutors dismissed the case, saying they did not have enough evidence to convict her at trial.

They then refiled the charge saying new evidence emerged. Wilson remains in the Montana Women’s Prison, where she is serving a five-year sentence for tampering with evidence in Marchant’s murder.

No one else has been charged with the slaying.

• The federal government allocates $80 million in stimulus funds to build a new federal courthouse in downtown Billings.

The new courthouse will replace the James F. Battin Federal Courthouse, which is unsafe because of asbestos.

After months of wrangling with local agencies, the federal government settles on a site next to the Yellowstone County Courthouse. The fate of the Battin building is unknown.

Work on clearing the site for a new courthouse begins in October.

 

April

 

• Seven years after a 52-year-old farmhand was found slain in Rapelje, authorities arrest a Texas man for the murder.

On April 27, Richard Phelps Edwards was arrested in Texas after his former wife gave investigators new information about the slaying. Edwards was brought back to Montana and charged in Stillwater County District Court with deliberate homicide.

Edwards and the victim, Daniel Lavigne, worked together at Herzog Farm, but a motive for the May 13, 2002 killing remains unclear. Edwards’ trial is set for February.

 

May

 

• Powder River County Sheriff John Blain fatally shoots 59-year-old John Thomas Andrew of Wilsall at a ranch near Broadus.

Blain had been called after a rancher found a strange man in a shed on his ranch.

During a coroner’s inquest in September, Blain says that, when he and a deputy sheriff arrived at the ranch, the man said he had a gun, raising a pistol and pointing it at the officers.

Blain opened fire with his handgun. The coroner’s jury says that Blain was justified when he shot Andrew.

• A 65-year-old Fromberg man calls 911 to report that he had shot his 42-year-old son during an argument. Police find Buddy Eugene Daniels dead of gunshot wounds.

His father, Larry B. Daniels, is charged with deliberate homicide in Carbon County District Court.

Defense attorneys claim the shooting was self-defense and the murder charge should be dismissed. Prosecutors argue the evidence supports the charge because the victim was shot twice in the back.

Trial has been scheduled for February.

• Two members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet travel to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation to learn about issues confronting the Montana tribe.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan spends two hours in the Lame Deer High library, sitting in a circle with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, 23 education and school officials, students and parents listening to their ideas and concerns and occasionally asking questions.

It was Duncan’s first visit to an Indian reservation.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan spends four hours touring houses on the reservation and meeting with residents and tribal officials.

Both men also are honored during a ceremony at the tribal offices, along with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Gov. Schweitzer and Juneau.

 

June

 

• Cary Greenlee is arrested at a Bend, Ore., convenience store near his home on an allegation that he killed his wife during a hunting trip nearly 20 years ago.

Greenlee, a former Billings minister, is arraigned in Carbon County District Court on a charge of deliberate homicide for the October 1990 death of Anita Greenlee, who died of a single gunshot wound. Prosecutors allege new evidence supports the murder charge, including statements from the couple’s daughter who was on the fatal hunting trip near Red Lodge.

The case is pending.

• Yellowstone County Sheriff Chuck Maxwell, 67, dies of cancer after 45 years in law enforcement.

Maxwell became sheriff on Jan. 4, 1993, filling out the term of Sheriff Mike Schafer, who died while in office. Maxwell is elected sheriff in 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006.

County commissioners appoint Undersheriff Jay Bell as the new sheriff.

• In June and July, Yellowstone County has more fatal motorcycle crashes than it has seen in the previous three years combined.

Four deadly motorcycle crashes occurred in that two-month period, compared with three total in 2006 through 2008.

The increase is attributed to more people getting motorcycle licenses, Billings’ population growth and more bikes on the streets.

• Hematology-Oncology Centers of the Northern Rockies, an affiliate of St. Vincent Healthcare, breaks ground on a $23 million, 39,000-square-foot cancer center on Billings’ West End.

 

July

 

• A property dispute between Roundup neighbors erupts in gunfire, leaving a 48-year-old man dead.

Prosecutors allege Bobby Cooksey, 67, shot his neighbor, Tracy Lee Beardslee, during an ongoing dispute about a road that crossed Cooksey’s property. Beardslee was shot while trimming grass on his property.

Cooksey was charged with deliberate homicide, and his case is pending.

• Former Denver Broncos running back Travis Henry is sentenced to three years in federal prison on cocaine trafficking charges.

Henry, 30, who had a $22.5 million, five-year contract with the Broncos, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge for trafficking an estimated 5 kilos, or about 11 pounds, of cocaine from the Denver area to Billings.

• Ex-Carbon County Attorney Robert Eddleman and Billings interior designer Terri Jabs Kurth are sentenced to federal prison on cocaine charges.

Eddleman, 51, and Kurth, 43, pleaded guilty in March to an indictment charging them with conspiring to maintain premises for cocaine distribution. They admitted using cocaine and making it available to friends during parties at their homes.

Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull sentenced Eddleman to 2-1/2 years in prison and Kurth to eight months in prison.

Their indictments were part of a larger investigation that led to charges against nine others.

• Del Laverdure, chief legal counsel for the executive branch of the Crow Tribe, is appointed deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The appointment puts Laverdure second behind Assistant Secretary Larry Echo Hawk, who oversees and coordinates policy decisions for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education.

 

August

 

• An 18-year-old Lodge Grass man is charged with vehicular homicide and three counts of vehicular assault for an Aug. 8 crash on Zimmerman Trail.

Prosecutors allege Jeremy Flatmouth was driving drunk when he lost control of a 2005 Chrysler Sebring while speeding up the two-lane, twisting road at 3:30 a.m. The car went over the edge and crashed into a hillside, ejecting Flatmouth and four other teenagers.

Joshua Yarlott-Old Bull, 19, was killed. The three other teens suffered serious injuries. The case against Flatmouth, who pleads not guilty, is pending.

• Billings Clinic opens its new 50,000-square-foot cancer center in August.

The $31 million facility is on the hospital’s downtown campus. About 1,600 people a year are treated for cancer at Billings Clinic.

• A confrontation between two Walmart employees escalates into gunfire, injuring 32-year-old Danny Lira when a small-caliber bullet strikes him in the forehead.

The bullet fragments and does not penetrate Lira’s skull.

The alleged shooter, Craig Schmidt, is arrested at the scene, but he is quickly released. In ordering Schmidt’s release, County Attorney Dennis Paxinos cites a new state law commonly known as the Castle Doctrine that Paxinos said requires authorities to fully investigate whether Schmidt acted in self-defense.

The two men were working on the loading dock at the King Avenue store when the shooting happened. As of mid-December, the shooting remained under investigation, and Paxinos had not announced whether any charges would be filed.

• President Barack Obama and his family visit Bozeman, Big Sky and Yellowstone National Park.

• A Billings man is shot to death in an alley in what prosecutors describe as a confrontation between romantic rivals.

The Aug. 26 death of Troy Holland is the first homicide in Billings in more than a year.

Amasa Pinkney Niles IV, 37, is arrested about 12 hours after the shooting and later pleads not guilty to deliberate homicide in District Court.

In charging documents, prosecutors allege Holland, 29, went to the Rainbow Motel on St. Johns Avenue armed with a baseball bat to confront Niles and his girlfriend, who were together in a room.

A witness said Holland began pounding on the outside wall of the room from the alley behind the motel, and Niles grabbed a handgun and left the room. The witness heard a gunshot and said Niles returned to the room before fleeing the motel.

The murder case is pending.

• MontanaFair brings in something for everyone with pop star Kelly Clarkson, country singer Trace Adkins, guitar icon Peter Frampton for the boomers and Nate and Alex Wolff from the Naked Brothers Band for tweens.

• Magic City Blues draws good crowds despite rainy weather.

Little Feat and Los Lonely Boys top the bill, but Trombone Shorty and the Orleans Avenue Band steal the show.

• Rocky Mountain College students start the school year in a newly renovated Morledge-Kimball Hall.

Over the last year, the former women’s dormitory was gutted and remodeled into comfortable, energy-efficient classrooms and professors’ offices.

 

September

 

• Montana’s first wolf hunt isn’t without controversy, especially after a Yellowstone National Park wolf that gained fame in a documentary is shot just outside the park’s border.

Environmental groups had sued to halt hunts in Montana and Idaho. But Judge Donald Molloy did not stop them, although his ruling next year could put a halt to hunts.

In all, Montana hunters shot 72 wolves in the state. Four special backcountry hunts opened in September with a statewide hunt in October.

• The Bureau of Land Management’s roundup and adoption of a portion of its wild horse herd in the Pryor Mountains south of Billings causes a national uproar.

The herd has been popularized by films that follow one of the herd’s stallions.

Although the roundup and adoption go ahead as planned, the Interior Department has already moved to make changes to its wild horse program.

• Modest Mouse roars back into town for a sold-out rock show at the Alberta Bair Theater.

• Montana State University Billings reaches a record enrollment fall semester.

Total enrollment topped 5,000 for the first time in the school’s history. Growth was even more dramatic at MSU Billings’ College of Technology, which had a 61 percent increase in full-time-equivalent students over fall 2008.

• Mountain pine beetles, which have turned mountainsides of trees red across the state, are found in trees in Billings.

• The Eagle Mount fire west of Columbus is contained after burning 900 acres, three cabin-like structures and a bus.

Two subdivisions are evacuated because of the fire threat.

Although 2009 was a quieter fire season than in some past years, a large fire burned in Yellowstone National Park. The lightning-caused Arnica fire near Yellowstone Lake grew to 10,700 acres before snow and rain helped extinguish it.

• A federal judge’s ruling returns grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Area to the endangered species list, only two years after they were removed.

Judge Donald Molloy said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not taken climate change into consideration and its effect on important food sources for the grizzlies, such as the rapidly declining whitebark pine tree. The tree’s nuts are a source of fall protein for the bears.

• A 15-year-old girl is struck by a First Student school bus as she is crossing Central Avenue on her way to West High at 7:40 a.m.

The bus driver, 53-year-old Timothy Whalen, later is charged by warrant with felony counts of negligent vehicular assault, criminal endangerment and failure to remain at the scene of the accident. Prosecutors allege he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.118 percent two hours after the incident. The reading is nearly four times above the legal limit for commercial drivers.

Whalen, an attorney and former state lawmaker, is arrested in Washington state Nov. 4 and is returned to Billings in December. He pleads not guilty to felony charges.

• From the end of 2008 through September 2009, the Billings Police Department adds about 20 new sworn officers, meaning the department is fully staffed for the first time in years.

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BPD now has about 140 sworn staff members, and it has seen the benefits with more officers on the street during shifts and younger officers on the force, many of whom have more training with new technology.

• An $8 million Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic opens on the West End.

The new building is 2ƒ times the size of the previous VA clinic in Billings, which is still being used for some veterans’ services.

The new clinic on Gabel Road has 35 examination and procedure rooms, five waiting areas, two conference rooms and private offices for physicians. It is the first VA clinic in Montana to have its own CT scanner.

It serves 6,800 patients a year and employs 60 people.

• Big Horn County rancher Henry Real Bird is named Montana’s poet laureate by Gov. Schweitzer.

 

October

 

• On Oct. 1, Montana becomes the 18th state to ban smoking in all public buildings.

The Clean Indoor Air Act, passed by the 2005 Montana Legislature, took partial effect in 2007, when smoking was outlawed in all public buildings except for casinos and bars.

Bars and casinos begin observing the smoking ban this year. Businesses that violate the ban can be fined as much as $500.

Many smoking establishments, especially those with gambling machines, report a sharp drop in revenue in the weeks after Oct. 1. It is too soon to tell if business will rebound.

• Ground is broken on a new Huntley Project High to replace a building destroyed by arson in September 2008.

Three Huntley Project teenagers have pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to the fire, and charges are pending against a fourth.

• Stillwater County authorities respond to a house on Molt-Rapelje Road and find 33-year-old Michael Blattie dead of a gunshot wound.

Blattie, the son of a former Stillwater County commissioner, is found on the front porch of his house.

Blattie’s neighbor, 48-year-old Jeffrey Lynn Hardman, is arrested about two weeks later and charged with deliberate homicide. Authorities allege Hardman left a note in his house admitting to the crime.

• The Billings Food Bank inaugurates its new 54,000-square-foot building by distributing several thousand Thanksgiving food baskets.

• Independence Hall, a transitional facility for 20 homeless veterans, opens in a new home in the Heights.

Veterans ranging in age from 23 to 68 now live in the home operated by a nonprofit group.

• The Montana Board of Regents picks Waded Cruzado, executive vice president and provost at New Mexico State University, to be the new president of Montana State University in Bozeman.

Cruzado’s pay of $280,000 plus benefits makes her the highest paid public official in the state.

• Yellowstone National Park has a record number of visitors for the first 10 months of the year, topping the previous annual record set in 2007.

Through October, the park had 3,267,683 visitors, more than the 3,151,343 recorded for all of 2007.

 

November

 

• Former police officer Tom Hanel easily defeats City Councilman Dick Clark to become Billings’ mayor-elect.

Clark retains his seat in Ward 5. Newcomers Angela Cimmino and Richard McFadden are elected to the council, while several incumbents are re-elected.

• Work begins to repair a deteriorating window well at McKinley Elementary.

Water runoff from the 103-year-old school caused pressure on the window well, and it could have collapsed into the school.

• Former Billings Outlaws football player Shon Flores, 32, pleads guilty in federal court to conspiring to distribute at least 9 kilograms, or almost 20 pounds, of cocaine in the Billings area.

Nine others, including three former Outlaws players, also are charged in the conspiracy. Four of the defendants have pleaded guilty.

Chase Raynock, a former Outlaws player and coach who also played with the University of Montana, pleads guilty to conspiracy charges. He loses his job in the communications division with the professional indoors football organization because of his conviction.

• School District 2 Superintendent Jack Copps, 72, announces he will retire at the end of the school year, which will be his fourth year in that job.

A search is under way for a replacement.

•n In November, natural gas is produced for the first time on the Crow reservation.

Talks started between Ursa Major, an Oklahoma-based company, and Crow leaders in 2006, and exploratory drilling began in 2007. Seven wells had been drilled by early December, and the company planned to drill seven more wells by the end of 2009 and to continue adding more over time.

A 12-inch pipeline allows the natural gas produced by the wells to be piped to locations east and west of the reservation.

• Former Billings resident Jimmy Ray Bromgard loses his appeal in a civil rights case against Yellowstone County.

Bromgard, who spent more than 15 years in state prison for a child rape he didn’t commit, alleged the county violated his right to effective assistance of counsel and claimed his court-appointed defense attorney was inadequate.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agrees with a district court ruling that the state of Montana, not the county, was responsible for providing indigent defendants with adequate defense in 1987.

Earlier Bromgard settled a claim against the state for $3.2 million, which was the largest amount the state had ever paid to settle a civil rights claim. A jury convicted Bromgard of raping a child, but DNA evidence later exonerated him.

• Sandra Hawke, MetraPark marketing director, receives this year’s “Fair Person of the Year” award from the Rocky Mountain Association of Fairs.

• U.S. Army Private First Class Michael A. Rogers of White Sulphur Springs dies of noncombat related injuries in Iraq.

 

December

 

• U.S. Sen. Max Baucus’s office confirms that he was romantically involved with his state director, Melodee Hanes, when he nominated her to become Montana’s U.S. attorney earlier this year, according to Roll Call newspaper.

Hanes later withdrew her name from consideration for the job.

In March, Baucus submits the name of Hanes along with those of Mike Wheat and Mike Cotter for the position. President Barack Obama names Cotter.

• Ticket sales are down significantly at MetraPark nearly halfway through its fiscal year.

From July 1 through the end of November, ticket sales totaled $869,847, down from $2 million at the same time last year.

• The Parmly Billings Library Board decides against recommending moving into the Gainan’s downtown building in Billings.

Gauging a “tepid” response from the public for that plan, the board is going back to the drawing board to find a way to deal with library needs.

On Dec. 14, the board asked the Billings City Council to wait until at least October for any changes to the library so a board committee can investigate other options.

• A plan for a much-anticipated swimming pool in the Heights took several steps forward as the private foundation behind the plan picked a city park location and entered into talks with the city.

On Dec. 14, the Billings City Council approved a development agreement with the Better Billings Foundation. The city will donate 6.7 acres in Sahara Park to the foundation, which now has three years to raise $4 million to build the pool.

• Two men die and a third is seriously wounded in a shooting in a Colstrip bar.

Spenser Benson, 22, and Heath Becker, 31, both of Colstrip die after being shot at the Whiskey Gulch Saloon. Jason Burnett, 28, also of Colstrip, is shot in the head and undergoes surgery at a Billings hospital.

James Ronald Wilson, 51, of Lame Deer is booked into the Yellowstone County Detention Facility on two counts of deliberate homicide and one count of attempted deliberate homicide in the case.

• Daisy Rae Morast, 24, of Billings is arrested and booked into the Yellowstone County Detention Facility on suspicion of deliberate homicide after her husband, Jason Morast, is fatally stabbed at their North Side home.

Two days later, she is released without being charged after it was determined that she had “a substantial claim of justifiable use of force.”

Court records indicated their marriage had a history of domestic violence.

• An early-morning fire destroys a building housing Red Lodge city maintenance vehicles and equipment.

The century-old building’s destruction caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in ddamage, but no injuries occurred.

• As the year ends, progress is being made on Capitol Hill toward overhaul of the nation’s health-care system, a promise that President Obama made during his campaign.

As chairman of the senate Finance Committee, Baucus became a key player in the debate, which has consumed months in the U.S. House and Senate and drawn support and harsh criticism from the public.

The final form remains to be seen, but various plans have looked at ways to make insurance available to all citizens and to control costs without dramatic tax increases.

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