Same-sex marriage, a new library and a Senate seat that flipped for the first time in more than a century make The Billings Gazette's Top 10 stories of 2014.
The stories, voted on by staff members of The Gazette, were chosen from a list of more than 100 stories that happened in Billings or Montana. Staff members narrowed the list to 10.
Here, in order, are The Gazette's picks for Top 10 stories of the year.
1. Gay marriage becomes legal in Montana.
On Nov. 19, a federal judge overturned Montana's ban on gay marriage.
In his decision U.S. District Judge Brian Morris ruled that the state's 2004 voter-approved constitutional amendment, which limited marriage to matrimony between a man and a woman, violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause. Morris' ruling immediately allowed gay couples to marry.
"This decision overturns a Montana Constitutional amendment approved by the voters of Montana," Morris wrote. "Yet the United States Constitution exists to protect disfavored minorities from the will of the majority."
While couples rushed to county courthouses across the state to marry in the ensuing hours and days — some even holding impromptu services in the hallways after finishing their paperwork — Montana Attorney General Tim Fox announced he will appeal the ruling, saying it was his duty to defend the ban until no more appeals could be made.
Fox's opening arguments are due Feb. 27 while the plaintiff's arguments, represented by the ACLU of Montana, are due March 30 before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, a deputy clerk at the Yellowstone County Clerk of District Court's office objected to issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples because of religious beliefs. County Attorney Scott Twito said since the office is big enough to accommodate the religious objection, the clerk could be exempted; however, Clerk of District Court Kristie Lee Boelter disagreed, saying all employees must follow the new law. This led to a showdown between Boelter and the three Yellowstone County Commissioners.
2. Serial rapist Toby Griego is sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
In July, a Billings judge sentenced convicted serial rapist Toby Eugene Griego to 22 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole, plus 60 years and six months, for raping three women and attempting to rape a fourth in 2013.
“I’ve never seen a more dangerous criminal or a bigger predator in our community,” Yellowstone County District Judge Russell C. Fagg said as he issued the sentence.
A 12-person jury found Griego, a Level 3 sex offender, guilty of all 27 counts at the end of a week of testimony, including from multiple detectives and two of four victims in the case.
No DNA was found linking Griego, 42, to the attacks. In fact, very little evidence was found connecting him with the crimes — with one critical exception: images recovered from his cellphone, including a video that showed his face and a victim during one of the four attacks, which took place on Jan. 27, April 25, May 27 and July 2 of 2013.
Griego legally moved to Billings after serving time in New Mexico, where he was convicted of attacking at least five women.
After Griego’s trial, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John described him as a “true serial rapist,” the likes of which he had never been seen in Billings.
3. The Billings City Council nixes a proposed non-discrimination ordinance after weeks of intense debate.
By a 6-5 margin in the early morning hours of Aug. 12, the Billings City Council defeated a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance.
The NDO, drafted, altered and then debated for months before it came to a vote, would have amended city code to protect Billings residents from being discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Those protections would have included housing, public accommodations and employment.
Mayor Tom Hanel cast the decisive vote in a packed and heated council chambers just past 3 on the Tuesday morning. NDO supporters wore orange T-shirts while those opposed generally dressed in white.
NDO supporters, including Councilwoman Becky Bird, called the vote “shameful.” But her colleague, Rich McFadden, said that “not every problem, real or imagined, is for the government to fix.”
4. Billings shatters the winter snowfall record.
March 24 was one for the record books as Billings blew past its old snowfall record of 98.9 inches in a single season.
By the time all was said and done, 103.5 inches had fallen on Billings in a snowfall season that started earlier than usual in 2013 and didn't let up until April 2014, shattering the old record set in the 1996-1997 season.
Unofficially dubbed "The March to 100" by officials at the National Weather Service in Billings, the snow just kept coming and coming and coming, leading many to think it wasn't a matter of if the record would fall, but when.
“Anyone who’s hoping that winter’s going to be over, that’s probably not going to happen any time soon,” said Joe Lester, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Billings, a month before the record fell.
While the snow mostly petered out by the end of April, it paved the way for a greener, wetter-than-normal spring and summer in Billings and around the region.
5. A May hailstorm brings millions of dollars of damage to homeowners and creates a boom in roofing and repair.
The snow had melted off from a record-setting winter, and spring was just settling in when a massive hailstorm clobbered Billings on May 18, blasting trees, shattering windows, tearing up roofs and pock-marking cars across the area.
When all was said and done, National Weather Service officials recorded hail ranging in size from golf balls to baseballs, 59 mph winds and a half-inch of rain in just 30 minutes.
It caused millions of dollars in damage, with insurance companies calling in response teams to help with the deluge of new claims, but it also brought in a flood of roofing and repair services, backing up the schedules of local services for months while drawing in independent workers from across the country.
6. Montana Sen. John Walsh drops out of the Senate race after the New York Times reports in July that he plagiarized much of a 2007 paper required for his master's degree from the U.S. Army War College.
Appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock in February to replace retiring Sen. Max Baucus, Walsh entered July needing to make a big splash in the U.S. Senate before returning to Montana to campaign during the month-long August recess.
You have free articles remaining.
He was to be the point man on the Democrat's key bill to lure manufacturing jobs back to the United States.
The Times story torpedoed Walsh's Senate moment, prompting him to withdraw on Aug. 7 from his race against Montana's lone representative in the U.S. House, Steve Daines, a Republican.
Democrats selected Butte school teacher Amanda Curtis to replace Walsh on the ticket. Daines easily won.
Later, the National Republican Senatorial Committee said its opposition research revealed the plagiarism, which the NRSC shared with a Times reporter.
7. District Judge G. Todd Baugh announces he will not run for re-election and is censured publicly by the Montana State Supreme Court.
In July, the Montana Supreme Court reprimanded and punished Yellowstone County District Judge G. Todd Baugh for comments he made about a teenage rape victim when he sentenced her abuser to 31 days in prison in a case that drew international scrutiny.
In August 2013, Baugh sentenced Stacey Dean Rambold, a former School District 2 teacher, to serve 15 years with all but 31 days suspended.
Rambold had pleaded guilty to having sex with one of his students, 14-year-old Cherice Moralez, in 2007. She committed suicide in 2010.
From the bench, Baugh commented that Moralez was “older than her chronological age” and “as much in control of the situation” as her abuser.
The Montana Supreme Court overturned the sentence and ordered a judge other than Baugh to issue a new one. The high court also publicly censured Baugh and suspended him for a month.
Baugh, who was elected a district judge in 1984 and re-elected four more times, announced in January 2013 that he would not to run for office again and retired at the end of 2014.
In September, visiting judge Randal Spaulding re-sentenced Rambold to 15 years in prison, with five years suspended. Rambold has since appealed the sentence to the Montana Supreme Court.
Chief Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Rod Souza won the election for Baugh’s seat and is scheduled to be sworn in Friday.
Rambold, now an inmate at Montana State Prison, has appealed his sentence.
8. The Bakken continues to boom, while towns, cities and counties in Eastern Montana cry out for more help for roads, schools and jails.
Bakken oil production surpassed a million barrels a day in 2014, but the streets and other infrastructure in the Montana communities within the oil boom's footprint continued to crumble under the stress.
Montana Bakken communities now put their price of their infrastructure needs beyond $90 million. Community leaders say their inability to accommodate the oil boom's rapid growth has left their communities poorly positioned to drill into the economy around them.
Montana's governor and Legislature will try in 2015 to pass an infrastructure spending bill for Bakken communities, but a similar attempt failed in 2013.
9. A new library opens for Billings.
A new Billings Public Library opened in the first full week of January, a culmination of nearly four years of planning, building and fundraising.
The new library literally sat in the shadow of the old four-story brick library building. The new library takes up nearly a full city block and has a 66,000 square feet of space. The library project, which includes a garden, expanded parking, a coffee bistro and expanded kids section had a pricetag of more than $20 million.
However, the old library didn't just slip into history in 2014. It stuck around stubbornly.
Weeks of summertime delays meant the new parking garden didn't get built in 2014, as planned.
Asbestos found at the old library contributed to the delays, and officials decided late in 2014 not to rush to open a gravel parking lot for the winter, but rather to create street parking as well as to open a small parking lot near the Dude Rancher Motel until spring of 2015, when construction on the 100-slot parking garden can resume.
In August, the Billings City Council approved a $404,000 library request to complete asbestos abatement work so that the Parmly structure could be torn down as quickly as possible. The library paid for the work out of its reserve fund.
On Dec. 12, library officials opened the main entrance on the south side of the library. That entry had been closed during construction of the parking garden, leaving library users only one entrance — the north entryway off Sixth Avenue North.
10. Billings Police Officer Grant Morrison shoots Richard Ramirez.
In April, Billings Police Officer Grant Morrison — who has killed someone in the line of duty before — shot and killed unarmed Richard Ramirez during a traffic stop.
Ramirez, a passenger in a car stopped in an alley on the South Side late on April 14, was later found to be unarmed, police said.
He failed to follow multiple commands from Morrison and appeared to be reaching for something, police said.
Members of Ramirez’s family have protested the killing and said they want charges filed against Morrison.
The incident was captured by the camera in Morrison’s patrol car. The footage hasn’t been made public, but will be shown in a two-day coroner’s inquest into whether the killing was justified, according to Senior Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Ed Zink.
The inquest is scheduled to begin Jan. 6.
The shooting came 14 months after Morrison shot and killed another man, 32-year-old Jason James Shaw, on Feb. 11, 2013, during a confrontation at a car outside a suspected drug house. Jurors in an August 2013 inquest ruled the shooting was justified.