YEAR IN REVIEW: A look back at 2013 in local news


By Daily News • Last Updated 2:00 pm on Thursday, January 02, 2014

The east clock facing of the Belding tower is successfully detached and carried away. — Daily News/Cory Smith

 

Belding’s historic buildings and clock tower come down

The Belding Bros. clock tower was a structure that stood for more than 100 years, erected in 1903.

It was an iconic figure that served as not only an operational clock for the majority of its life, but as an emblem of the small town and its historic past when Belding was known as “silk city,” operating as a pioneer and world leader in the development of the elastic fiber.

But this year, the tower met its controversial end as demolition crews steadily disassembled the structure while the surrounding building were demolished in the late spring.

The decision to destroy the tower and surrounding buildings was made last year after a two-year legal battle between the city and Electrolux Inc.

Belding City Council members reached an agreement with Electrolux that would see the buildings and tower come down, while saving key components such as the clock facings, roof shingles and engravings that were part of the original tower.

For several weeks beginning in April, residents of Belding and commuters of Bridge and Main streets watched, some out of curiosity, others in disbelief, as bulldozers, excavators and a crane fitted with a wrecking ball knocked down wall after wall of the various buildings, saving the clock tower fas the final piece of the crumbling puzzle.

In May, the tower came down, leaving only rubble and dust in its place.

Today, the 4-acre lot sits empty and seeded with new blades of grass hidden beneath a blanket of snow. The site is expected to be used as a city park, with $125,000 to be given to the city to create the park.

However, results of any findings of contaminants and their severity have yet to be released by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and several council members remain skeptical that the site is currently suitable for a public park.

“There was no cleanup done over there at all,” said Councilman Mike Scheid during a December council meeting. “They tore down the buildings, covered it up — they are trying to run away.”

One of the final steps in the process was completed in December, when council members voted to remove the site from the city’s historic district, a requirement stated in the consent judgment agreement between the city and Electrolux.

The city’s historic district was established in 2011, which at the time was viewed by Electrolux as a last-minute attempt by the city to prevent the company from destroying the buildings.

But in the end, the agreement was reached, the site was removed from the district, and its fate will be determined come March when the year-long period allowed for demolition officially comes to an end.

Mayor Ron Gunderson was the lone member of the council in 2012 who voted against the consent judgment agreement between the city and Electrolux, and remains unconvinced that the site will be ready in March as is stated in the agreement.

“It’s been a frustrating 2 1/2 years,” Gunderson said. “We get some communication with the (MDEQ), but we pretty much fall off of the radar. I’m not saying that we wont ever end up with that property over there, but right now it’s up to the (MDEQ). If communication breaks down, we don’t have the funds to go after Electrolux. We need to hold the (MDEQ) responsible for their end of it.”

For now, the site will remain fenced in, but an end result of it becoming a public park very much resides with the contamination results that have yet to be released to the public by the MDEQ.


 

A surveillance photo from the Edmore bank robbery.

Alleged bank robber kills self after crime spree

A seemingly random series of bank robberies in Michigan led to a man’s self-inflicted death in the deep south last spring.

No one will ever know what was going through the mind of Jack Kaiser, 53, a Las Vegas native, as he allegedly walked into four different banks, implying he had a gun and asking for money.

The odd series of events began the morning of March 30 when Kaiser entered a Chemical Bank in Edmore and allegedly robbed the facility.

Less than two weeks later, he allegedly robbed the PNC Bank in Galesburg, about 100 miles south of Edmore, on April 12.

Less than one week later, he allegedly robbed the Tri-County Bank in Brown City, about 170 miles northeast of Galesburg, on April 18.

Just over one week later, he allegedly robbed the CSB (Capac State Bank) in Yale, about 15 miles southeast of Brown City, April 27.

All four robberies were successful as Kaiser left each scene with undisclosed amounts of money. All four robberies were brazen as well. Kaiser didn’t feel the need to wear a disguise, instead sporting all-American apparel, such as a T-shirt emblazoned with the American flag and the words “USA” or a T-shirt sporting the Mustang car logo.

It all came to a sudden end amid a traffic jam on a southern day late in April.

The Alpharetta Department of Public Safety was contacted by law enforcement officials in St. Claire near Detroit who believed Kaiser was traveling through Georgia toward Alpharetta.

A police lieutenant spotted Kaiser’s vehicle and requested back-up units. Kaiser refused to stop and a slow speed chase ensued. Kaiser pulled into a strip mall parking lot and attempted to lose police, but his vehicle was blocked by a congested traffic flow as he tried to exit the parking lot.

Again, no one will ever know what was going through Kaiser’s mind as armed police officers surrounded his vehicle. The Las Vegas man simply pulled out a handgun and shot himself. He was pronounced dead at the scene, leaving more questions than answers.


 

Bullet shell casings and broken glass from a Belding police cruiser lay on the ground in the parking lot outside of the Belding Police Station after an early morning shooting that began at the station. — Daily News/Cory Smith

Belding police shootout ends with Sidney man dead

The early, quiet hours of Saturday, Jan. 4, were interrupted by the sound of gunfire at the Belding Police Department, with the end result being that of a fatal shootout between officers and a lone gunman.

At 5:12 a.m., shots were fired outside of the department, located at 120 S. Pleasant St.

At the sound of gunfire, Officer Jason Cooper stepped outside to investigate and found that damage had been done to one of the patrol cars.

Cooper began his pursuit of the suspect, later identified as Bernard Rowley, 55, of Sidney, who was driving a white van.

Cooper pursued Rowley on a low-speed chase throughout downtown Belding and was eventually joined in the chase by Michigan State Police Trooper Roger Hunt. The chase ended on the corner of Belding Road and Hawley Highway, about 1.4 miles away from the police station.

According to the investigation performed by the Michigan State Police, Rowley was ordered out of the van by officers and did exit the van. He stood with his hands in the air, a shotgun held in one of his hands.

Hunt ordered Rowley to stop and drop the weapon and put his arms in the air. Rowley ignored the instructions and continued walking. He then stopped and fired one shot at Hunt’s patrol car.

“The suspect then fired a number of rounds at the officers,” said MSP Lt. Commander Kevin Sweeney. “Shots were fired, I can’t confirm how many, but a round hit the cruiser.”

Return fire was given by Cooper, in which Rowley suffered fatal wounds.

Rowley was pronounced dead at 5:37 a.m. No police officers were injured in the exchange of gunfire.

Cooper was placed on paid leave from the department after the shooting, but was cleared to return to the department in February after going through a counseling program provided by the department.

Ionia County Prosecutor Ronald Schafer ruled that Cooper’s actions were justified to protect Hunt, as well as Cooper.

“Officer Cooper’s actions in the shooting were justified. He acted in response to an honest and reasonable belief that deadly force was required to prevent death or great bodily harm; he acted in self-defense, as well as acting in the defense of another, specifically Trooper Hunt,” Schafer wrote in his conclusion of the case.


 

Edmore Village President Chet Guild

Edmore business becomes talk of the town

A well-known Edmore business partnership has only made three payments since 2006 on a $220,000 loan from the Edmore Economic Loan Fund Development program.

However, the issue didn’t make headlines until members of the Edmore Village Council decided to openly discuss the issue at their May 10 meeting, sparing not a cringeworthy detail about they felt about Tony Maxfield and his family members.

The council conversation was made very public after someone in the audience quietly recorded the discussion so others could hear exactly how village officials felt.

Village President Chet Guild initiated the discussion at that meeting, saying one option was to sue Tony Maxfield and his sister, Shari, both of whom signed a personal note of guarantee for the loan. The Maxfield siblings own Averyville Acres, which owns Maxfield’s Restaurant in Blanchard, Maxfield’s Inn in Edmore and The Depot in Edmore.

Personal opinions really began to let loose in the meeting when Guild and council members and audience members discussed at length and with apparent disdain about how they believe Maxfield spends his money. Allegations were voiced about Maxfield hiding his money, Maxfield and his wife going on an “expensive vacation that nobody else can afford,” Maxfield’s father going to Florida for the winter and driving a “nice Escalade” and Maxfield’s brother-in-law riding new “Harleys.”

“I know people in Edmore are tired of being spit on, for lack of a better word,” Guild summarized.

Tony Maxfield didn’t take the personal accusations quietly. He let village officials know exactly how he felt at a Sept. 26 Edmore Economic Loan Fund Development Committee meeting — the audio of which also was recorded.

“There’s 45 minutes of the council basically being slanderous against the family,” Maxfield told village officials referring to the May 10 meeting. “I feel it was inappropriate. You opened yourself up a big can of worms, basically.

“(The entire situation is) very biased,” Maxfield added. “It’s pretty obvious that this is a personal agenda by him (Guild), not a business decision by the council and what’s best for the community.”

Ever since the public discussions made multiple headlines, village officials and the Maxfields have been more quietly working toward an agreement to resolve the overdue loan.


 

The Eureka Township Hall was almost filled as community members came to speak to the township board about a variety of issues. — Daily News/Kelli Ameling

Eureka Township plays host to multiple controversies

When the Greek scientist Archimedes realized he had discovered a method for determining the purity of gold, he famously shouted “Eureka!,” a term commonly associated with the triumph of discovery.

Considering the Eureka Township Board’s topsy-turvy year, the similarities probably end there.

It was less than an inspiring year for the township, which saw its supervisor take a leave of absence shortly after re-election (later to step down completely), a Freedom Of Information Act lawsuit with the city of Greenville, a business annexation battle (again, with the city of Greenville) and an improperly held closed session during a public meeting.

The November 2012 election was a close one, one that required a recount, but Supervisor Laura Shears earned her second term as township supervisor. Less than a week after the recount, Shears took a leave of absence, citing a medical issue and a doctor’s recommendation. Longtime trustee Rodney Roy was appointed interim supervisor.

Shears never return to the board, submitting her resignation in April. Township officials said Shears had moved out of the township and could no longer serve as supervisor. Roy was officially appointed supervisor until the next general election in November 2014.

Throughout 2013, Eureka Township and Greenville and their attorneys went to battle over a lawsuit stemming from a FOIA request made by Greenville City Manager George Bosanic for documents from the township.

In his request, filed in September 2012, Bosanic asked for public records of an agreement between the city and the township relating to grinder pumps and a forced sewer main constructed near Baldwin Lake, which is partially in the city and partially in the township.

The township responded by giving Bosanic a $400 bill and even trying to charge him for viewing township documents in person. The lengthy lawsuit battle frequently made headlines as city and township officials often referred to the matter during public meetings.

The two municipalities agreed to an out-of-court settlement in September. The settlement required the township to waive the $400 fee and contribute $2,500 to the Greenville Department of Public Safety for new accessories or equipment.

City officials, in a decision that outraged township officials, transferred the $2,500 “donation” from the public safety fund to the general fund to pay for attorney fees related to the lawsuit.

The settlement also required the township to “review with its legal counsel the township’s current FOIA policies and procedures to ensure future compliance with the FOIA. The township boar it adopted a new FOIA policy in November.

Another two months of heated discussions took place between Eureka Township and Greenville regarding a request from Mersen USA to annex its property, which was previously split between the two municipalities, entirely into the city. According to Mersen, the reason for the request was so future expansions would go more smoothly as grant funding was more readily available and easier to obtain if the property was included in a single municipality. But township officials didn’t want the annexation to happen.

The Michigan State Boundary Commission ended the dispute in June, ruling that the move into the city would be beneficial to all parties involved.

Eureka Township drew headlines and criticism again after the board inappropriately entered into a closed session on June 10 after Trustee Jeremy Austin made the request for “personal scenario situation.” According to state law, this is not an acceptable reason for going into closed session.

The minutes of the 14-minute-long “closed session” was made public after a request from The Daily News. The discussion involved Austin’s concern about whether a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) anti-discrimination resolution would violate state law.

Earlier at the June 10 meeting, residents Justin Barr and Christian Sowers had presented a LGBT anti-discrimination draft ordinance to the township board for their consideration.

Barr, a Greenville High School student, asked the township board for an apology at July’s meeting. Austin apologized for his ignorance of closed session procedures.


 

Samantha Slater, right, is overcome with emotion after a judge dismissed child abuse charges against her involving Slater’s daughter Brooklyn. Slater’s attorney Monica Tissue-Daws holds her client’s hand. — Daily News/ Kelli Ameling

Greenville child abuse story captures community’s attention

The story of how a Greenville girl suffered abuse made headlines from March through September … but the effects of that abuse will surely last much longer.

When news broke about 2-year-old Brooklyn Weimer being abused on March 24, Greenville and surrounding communities immediately rallied around the little girl, who was clinging to life after suffering severe abdominal and brain injuries.

A candlelight vigil brought a somber and tearful crowd to Veterans Park in Greenville, where they prayed for the toddler who lay in a coma at a Grand Rapids Hospital.

In April, Brooklyn’s mother, Samantha Slater, and Slater’s boyfriend, Benjamin Wilkins were arrested and charged with first- and second-degree child abuse.

In May, after an emotional series of court hearings (a key witness suffered a seizure and passed out, striking her head on the witness stand at one hearing), Judge Donald Hemingsen dismissed all criminal charges against Slater, citing a lack of evidence. The mother dissolved into tears of relief while clutching her attorney’s hand.

Wilkins waived his preliminary examination in May, but then he and his attorney parted ways, citing a broken working relationship. In the meantime, Wilkins pleaded no contest to a related civil charge of abuse/neglect in probate court.

In May, Slater and her ex-husband Brent Slater signed a stipulation to amend their previous judgment of divorce to say that Brent Slater is no longer Brooklyn’s legal father. The toddler’s legal father was now her biological father, Clayton Weimer.

Odds are Clayton Weimer will not be seeing his daughter anytime soon. He was convicted on a cannabis charge in 2010 and was sentenced to 16 years in prison in Illinois. His earliest projected parole date is March 2018.

In July, Wilkins took advantage of a plea deal offer from the Montcalm County Prosecutor’s Office. He pleaded no contest to second-degree child abuse and being a habitual offender second offense.

Brooklyn finally began to show signs of improvement and was allowed to be taken off life support. She continued to recover in the hospital.

In August, the Department of Human Services withdrew its motion for Slater’s parental rights trial, meaning civil charges were effectively dismissed against her. The court will continue to have jurisdiction over Brooklyn while DHS gives Slater a case service plan and monitors her parenting over the next year.

At his sentencing in September, Wilkins confessed to making some bad judgment calls while babysitting his girlfriend’s daughter, but he came short of admitting that it was he who harmed the toddler.

He had been facing a maximum sentence of life in prison, but after taking the plea deal he was sentenced to from 10 to 15 years in prison.


 

A school bus creates a wave of water after driving through a portion of M-91 covered in water south of Greenville. — Daily News/Cory Smith

Heavy rain brings high waters in April

More than one local resident probably considered starting work on an ark last April.

With flood water at a high not seen since 1986, many roads were closed in Ionia and Montcalm counties and road commission crews were working through the night to open them again.

According to Road Commission for Montcalm County Managing Director Mark Christensen, many roads were closed due to culvert failures and heavy rains, with Carson City being the most heavily hit municipality in the area. Overall, the east side of the county was more adversely impacted by the heavy downpour.

Crews spent a considerable amount of time simply moving signs and road closure markers from place to place as the rains moved and conditions changed.

Health department officials warned of possible health threats from sewage runoff and overflow from lakes, rivers and streams. Residents were cautioned to boil water suspected of containing contaminants to remove bacteria such as E. coli and cholera, and protozoa such as giardia, along with viruses like hepatitis. Residents whose homes were serviced by wells rather than city water were particularly susceptible.

Owners of wells that had been flooded were encouraged to disinfect and then sample their water for bacteriological contaminants prior to use.

It took about a week for the area to recover from the flooding and for all roads that had been closed to be reopened. Christensen called dealing with the fallout from the flood “challenging.”

At its peak, the flood was responsible for closing 16 roads in Montcalm County. Sections of many gravel roads washed out entirely and had to be built back up prior to resumption of traffic. Near the end of the month, portions of three roads — Lake Montcalm, Fitzner and Peck — still remained closed. However, Christensen reported that things were “getting better” with the cessation of the rain and a week of dryer weather.

The Montcalm County Drain Commission also put in plenty of overtime during the flooding, though for the most part the drainage system was able to handle the overflow. Some areas, though, were “bank to bank,” according to Drain Commissioner Sandra Raines.

County officials spent hours monitoring high lake levels in the area, but other than some overflow near the banks, most areas remained within safe limits and were starting to recede by the end of the month.


 

An American flag has been placed at the south end of the former Whites Bridge and now has many messages of support and condolences left by people who have visited the site, which was destroyed by arson on July 7. — Daily News/Cory Smith

Mysterious arson of historic Whites Covered Bridge

If there was one crime which galvanized the community this past year, it was the destruction of the historic Whites Covered Bridge in the early morning hours of July 8. By the time firefighting crews arrived at the bridge’s 4 Mile and Richmond roads location in Keene Township, the rustic wooden structure had already fallen into the river as a result of the fire.

Investigators quickly ruled the fire an arson. The question on everyone’s minds was, who would do such a thing? The bridge, which had been in use since 1867 was the state’s oldest covered bridge still in use.

Over the decades, countless prom, wedding and family photographs had featured the scenic bridge as a backdrop. Couples and children by the thousands had picnicked nearby. The bridge was by every definition a landmark, a beloved part of the community and one that should have endured for years to come.

It’s senseless destruction brought comments of pain and outrage from community members.

The day after the bridge’s destruction, many local residents visited the scene to see the damage for themselves.

Wendy Agostini of Lowell was among those. As a child, Agostini’s father would bring her to the bridge and regale her with tales of its long and storied history. The father and daughter would walk across the bridge looking at the carvings in the wood, some dating back to 1892.

“We were so proud of it,” Agostini said. “(The community) loved this bridge and now it’s gone. I hurts my heart. This hurts so bad. Why would someone want to hurt the community like this.”

Another Lowell resident, Melissa Vandersloot, described the arson as “devastating,” noting how important it had been to the community.

Yet another Lowell resident, Jerry Batchelor, said the bridge’s beauty was like a trip back in time.

A few weeks later, current Alma resident and Belding native Paul Phenix, along with several other volunteers, launched a campaign to rebuild the bridge. The campaign quickly gained a large and enthusiastic following, though the project was beset with substantial hurdles, including the approximately $850,000 price tag and the likelihood that plans for a new, one-lane covered bridge might not be approved.

Ionia County Road Commission Director Dorothy Pohl said she was personally behind Phenix’s efforts, but that the commission had no extra funds available, since it was still dealing with fallout from flooding that took place in April.

Phenix and his group decided to file as a 501 C-3 nonprofit and try to raise funding for a new bridge, though he admitted the effort would likely be a long one, fraught with numerous hurdles and beuqacratic red tape.

The arson of the bridge remains unsolved.


 

Rescue personnel on the Flat River search by boat for missing 10-year-old Devon Morrison in Belding. — Daily News/Cory Smith

Missing Belding boy found drowned

One of the most tragic stories this year was the disappearance and death of 10-year-old Devon Morrison of Belding.

On Sept. 14, it was reported by Devon’s parents to the Belding Police Department that the boy had been missing since he had ventured from home to go fishing along the Flat River earlier that Saturday morning.

Devon’s disappearance quickly spawned a city-wide search, in which thousands of members of the Belding community and surrounding area combed the city and river beginning in the early hours of Saturday evening.

Both that night and into the next day, residents searched non-stop in effort to find Devon. By Monday, the search included authorities from the Michigan State Police, who searched via helicopter, as well as additional firefighters and police officers who searched on foot and by boat.

“Number one, we want to find Devon,” said Belding Police Chief Dale Nelson on Sunday, Sept. 15. “If he’s out there I know he’s going to make the right choice and come back and let us know where he is at.”

The search for Devon was suspended Sunday evening, but resumed at daylight Monday morning, and the effort to find him only intensified.

At 12:53 p.m. that day, Devon’s body was found in the Flat River near the Ashfield Street bridge, just a few feet away from one of his favorite fishing spots.

“It’s an unfortunate end to what has been a three-day affair for everyone,” said Nelson during a press conference following the discovery. “I can only say, on behalf of the family, that they very much deeply appreciate everything that everyone has done.”

Devon’s death was eventually ruled an accidental drowning, and the support for Devon and his family was immediately felt with several candlelight vigils held throughout the community.

Nelson ended his conference with a fitting quote to remember Devon by.

“We need to remember Devon, for Devon,” he said. “Whatever joy he brought to whomever he contacted was just a wonderful thing. I feel honored to be able to have spent some time with him and interact with him because he was a great kid, just a great kid … It will be difficult without Devon, but we will move on.”


 

Bricks with the names of area veterans are in place in front of each monument at Belding Veterans Park. Bricks painted gold recognize veterans who were killed in action. — Daily News/Cory Smith

Veterans Park becomes reality in Belding

Last year, Belding welcomed the addition of the new World War II memorial known as the “Freedom Wall.” This year, the community watched as the site evolved and become the city’s official Veterans Park.

After the Freedom Wall was officially dedicated on Nov. 11, 2012, plans were put into action to construct additional monuments on the new site located just west of the historic Pere Marquette Depot on Depot Street.

In the months following the wall’s dedication, Vietnam War veteran Denny Craycraft, who was instrumental in the development of the Freedom Wall, began collecting donations and creating plans for another memorial that would honor veterans from every brand of the United States military.

By Memorial Day of this year, Craycraft’s vision had become a reality as a monument featuring the insignias of all five branches of the military, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and also the Merchant Marines, was dedicated.

“I’m proud,” Craycraft said during the dedication. “The Freedom Wall is for WWII, but I also want everyone to know that this is going to be a park for all veterans. This is your place. Every branch, every era of war.”

On that day, the site known as the Freedom Wall officially became the Belding Veterans Park.

But Craycraft and his committee didn’t stop there.

Their plans call for future monuments that will represent every foreign war fought by members of the military, and on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, the city celebrated the addition of yet another monument.

The Korean War monument was placed on sight and unveiled by several area Korean War veterans in yet another emotional ceremony.

The monument now marks the third of its kind at the park, which will only continue to grow as long as the community continues to contribute funds.

“We’re walking into another chapter of history in this town, in this community,” Craycraft said. “A simple year ago a dream came true with the World War II monument. We got that accomplished. The big word is ‘we.’ It would not have happened without this community.”

Efforts will now move forward toward a monument honoring veterans of World War I.

Expectations are that by Veterans Day of 2014, there will once again be another ceremony to dedicate yet another monument at the new and expanding veterans park.

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