2019 Year in Review Part 2

Thursday, January 9, 2020
In August, CHS fire and safety personnel present a $50,000 donation check to the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department to purchase new “jaws of life” extrication tools.

In August, CHS fire and safety personnel present a $50,000 donation check to the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department to purchase new “jaws of life” extrication tools.

Don Nelson

Don Nelson

Emelie Eaton

Emelie Eaton

This crew of youngsters was having fun during the 4th of July parade in Laurel.

This crew of youngsters was having fun during the 4th of July parade in Laurel.

Krista Whitfield puts yellow ribbons on one of the 1,000 American flags on display during the Laurel Exchange Club’s Healing Field event.

Krista Whitfield puts yellow ribbons on one of the 1,000 American flags on display during the Laurel Exchange Club’s Healing Field event.

Lori Bray is suspected to have been murdered by by Diego Thomas Hernandez, 22, of Laurel sometime after leaving work in the early morning hours of Oct. 1. Hernandez was arrested at his home on Oct. 8 and charged with one count of deliberate homicide.

Lori Bray is suspected to have been murdered by by Diego Thomas Hernandez, 22, of Laurel sometime after leaving work in the early morning hours of Oct. 1. Hernandez was arrested at his home on Oct. 8 and charged with one count of deliberate homicide.

“Fred and Burt Furguson” (Middle School Principal Justin Klebe and LMS Assistant Principal Lucas Larson) had some fun with the teachers on their first day back to school last fall.

“Fred and Burt Furguson” (Middle School Principal Justin Klebe and LMS Assistant Principal Lucas Larson) had some fun with the teachers on their first day back to school last fall.

The Laurel High School musical this year was “Seussical,” based on the Broadway show featuring some of Dr. Seuss’ best loved stories and characters.

The Laurel High School musical this year was “Seussical,” based on the Broadway show featuring some of Dr. Seuss’ best loved stories and characters.

In September, a helicopter carried volunteers and a new solar lighting system to the top of Square Butte. The volunteers installed the new system which shines brightly on the cross originally installed in 1953.

In September, a helicopter carried volunteers and a new solar lighting system to the top of Square Butte. The volunteers installed the new system which shines brightly on the cross originally installed in 1953.

Tom Nelson

Tom Nelson

 

Take a look back at Laurel’s recent history. The last six months of 2019 were filled with closure for some and tragedy for others in the city. 

 

July

• A cold case murder that haunted a Laurel family and the Laurel community for more than 20 years came to a close as Zachary David O’Neill pleaded guilty to the 1998 murder of 18–year–old Miranda Fenner. She was murdered by O’Neill while she worked at the Movie Store on Nov. 15, 1998. O’Neill confessed to the crime in 2017 but was released when detectives were unable to corroborate his story. In early 2019 the State Crime Lab matched DNA to a sexual assault and attempted murder case from 1998. He was extradited from Washington state in February where he was serving time for burglary.

At the press conference announcing the guilty plea Laurel Police Chief Stan Langve stated, “I hope this represents a sense of justice for Miranda Fenner’s family and friends, so they can heal, not completely, but more fully. Our thoughts and prayers are with them.”

O’Neill was sentenced to life in prison on Aug. 23 for the Fenner murder and also for the rape and attempted murder of a female in Billings during the same year.

• Nine unprepared young adults were rescued off the Yellowstone River after a severe thunderstorm forced them onto an island between Park City and Laurel. They were tied together in pool toys, had no life jackets or paddles and the river was running high at more than 20,000 cubic feet per second at the Billings USGS water gauge. 

Stillwater County Search and Rescue President Chad Arnold said the group was actually lucky the storm forced them off the river where it did , because “there was a lot of wood in the water below where they were rescued.”

• Former city of Laurel Chief Administrative Officer filed a lawsuit against the city claiming wrongful discharge in May. His employment with the city ended in March. 

The Outlook contacted Lurker in late March seeking additional information and Lurker stated he had filed a grievance against the mayor. Mayor Nelson was asked about the grievance and said, “There is no grievance. This was a mutual decision.” The Billings Gazette reported on July 30 that Lurker had indeed filed a grievance against the mayor on March 22.

 

August

• CHS Refinery made a generous donation to the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department for the purchase of new electric extrication tools. The $50,000 donation, spread out over five years, will be used to purchase the new “jaws of life” equipment. LVFD Chief Brent Peters said having the tools is a great relief for the department which responds to several accidents per year on I–90, Highway 212 South and various city and county roads. “We can’t thank CHS enough for the generous donation that will help the community of Laurel for years to come,” he said.

• The Laurel City Council approved the annexation of about 42 acres of property on Laurel’s east side. Councilors voted 7–0 to approve the annexation of lot 18, Nutting Bros. Subdivision, 2nd filing and lots 19–25 Nutting Bros. Subdivision, 3rd filing. The approximately 34 acres west of Yard Office and north of Eleanor Roosevelt will be a good addition to the city said City Planner Nick Altonaga whose four–year contract with the city was also approved at the meeting. 

The other parcel approved for annexation is Regal Community Park, a seven–acre parcel north of 8th St. and south of Maryland Lane. The developer of the 50–unit manufactured housing park has fulfilled all the requirements the city requested.

• The Laurel School Board unanimously approved the LHS Sports Performance Facility bid to Yellowstone Basin Construction. The state–of–the–art weight room and classroom space is scheduled to be completed by mid–January but YBC contractors said they hope to have it completed sooner. The final bid on the project was $762,504 and is being privately funded. 

 

September

• Laurel Police Detective Joel Sauter announce two juveniles and one adult were identified as the serial vandals who broke dozens of vehicle windows in Laurel over the summer. The trio was outed by an anonymous tipster and subsequently admitted to breaking an estimated 50 window using a slingshot and marbles. All were charged with felony criminal mischief (common scheme) and Sauter said it is likely they will face additional charges out of Billings and Yellowstone County.

• On Sept. 12 the LPD responded to a report of an armed robbery in progress at the Laurel Taco Bell. A mask–wearing subject in a maroon Dodge pickup pulled into the drive–thru, handed the cashier a note demanding money while brandishing a firearm. The suspect then fled down South 1st Ave. 

During the subsequent investigation, Det. Sauter was able to get a surveillance photo of one of the suspects from Walmart security cameras after a witness reported spotting someone wearing a mask in a pickup matching the description of the suspect vehicle in the parking lot.

• Convicted murderer Walter Cassell died in prison following an extended illness. The Montana State Prison inmate was sentenced to 100 years in prison in 1995 for deliberate homicide with a dangerous weapon after he and another transient–Douglas Castle–murdered John Martin Formo at 506 Birch Ave. After murdering Formo, the two drug his body out the back door and threw it in a dumpster, which was discovered by a neighbor the following morning.

 

October

• A Laurel woman was reported missing after her shift at the Cedar Ridge Casino. Lori Bray was last seen on video surveillance leaving work at 12:30 a.m. with an unknown male. Her car was later found north of the cemetery on Buffalo Trail Rd. A search party of 20 volunteers scoured the area where her car was found.

Bray’s body was located two days later off Yard Office road by a man riding an ATV. She was identified and and the cause of death was determined to be homicide. 

Four days later Diego Thomas Hernandez, 22, of Laurel was arrested at his residence by Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Deputies on a charge of deliberate homicide and was transported to the Yellowstone County Detention Facility where he remains jailed on a $500,000 bond.

• Detective Sauter of the LPD announced arrest warrants were issued for the two suspects in the September armed robbery at the Taco Bell in Laurel. Marshal Lee Sipp, 27, was wanted on a $10,000 warrant for robbery with a weapons–enhanced felony and Phillip Jon Surratt, 35, on a $10,000 felony warrant for robbery by accountability. Both suspects’ last known addresses were in Billings.

• Student Support Services Director Sara Evans and Human Resources Director Joseph Patton gave a presentation on future staffing needs in the Laurel School District at the trustee meeting. Evans said a priority is providing high quality staff for the district’s special education and mental health needs. “There is more need for a school psychologist for mental health and behavioral support since leaving the co–op,” she said. Speech Language Pathologist, Occupational Therapist, Physical Therapist and Licensed Clinical Social Workers are also needed in Laurel. Evans said they were currently working on drafts for 3–4 job descriptions and were seeking ways to attract employees to the district. Superintendent Linda Filpula said the district hoped to begin advertising for the approved positions by February. 

 

November

• The Laurel School District’s proposition for the acquisition of property passed in the Nov. 7 election despite a concerted Facebook campaign by a school board trustee. 52 percent of voters agreed with the majority of the board and voted for the acquisition giving the district to go–ahead to purchase the land in northwest Laurel for a new elementary school. Superintendent Filpula said, “We are excited with the election results and grateful to the voters for their support. We are moving full steam ahead on our 10–15 year Master Plan and will be convening Community Engagement meetings in the next couple of months.”

• In the city election there were no upsets despite several campaigns that challenged the status quo. Mayor Tom Nelson was re–elected with 63 percent of the votes, beating out write–in candidate Ted Mize by a comfortable margin. 

Incumbents in Wards 2 and 3 were declared the winners as they had no one running against them. Richard Herr, Ward 2, and Scot Stokes, Ward 3, retained their seats.

Incumbent Emelie Eaton was re–elected in Ward 1. She was challenged by Evan Bruce and won by a margin of 34 votes.

Ward 4 produced the only new council member. A total of 109 write–in votes were cast in the ward with Don Nelson beating out David G. Walters for the seat occupied by outgoing councilor Bill Mountsier.

• At the Laurel City Council meeting Mayor Nelson and the councilors in attendance heard from the LVFD regarding changes the mayor proposed for the department. The mayor indicated in interviews he plans to combine the fire and ambulance departments and hire one fire chief to oversee the new department. Nearly 15 firefighters were in attendance at the meeting to express their disapproval of the plan. Sixteen–year volunteer with the LVFD Cory McIlvain called what he heard troublesome. “Our level of service, according to our ISO rating, is outstanding,” he said. Since the fire department isn’t broken he said he didn’t understand the budget cuts that have been made to facilitate the hiring of a new chief. Nine–year firefighter Zach Winchell called it “irresponsible and premature” for the city to hire a new chief to oversee a combined department.

• At the following week’s council meeting, where the Mayor was absent, Fire Chief Brent Peters asked “What are we trying to fix? The last 22 years I’ve been a responder in Laurel we’ve had a problem with EMS, not as a result of the EMTs. They are strong dedicated people, but there’s been a problem with staffing to cover all the calls. 

Chief Peters reported to the standing–room–only crowd that he received a letter that stated the mayor’s intent was to hire a full–time fire chief to oversee both fire and EMS. He questioned why the mayor planned to go in a direction that would cost the city more money, when, in his view, it made more sense to hire someone to be in charge of EMS and the five new EMTs that were to be hired. 

 

December

• The Laurel Police Department announced two adult males and two juveniles were arrested and charged with felonies for shooting out car windows in late November. Nine cases of criminal mischief were reported on Laurel’s south side and the suspects were located as a result of unrelated call. The four were brought in for questioning and all eventually admitted to shooting out the windows. Tanner Gritten, 18, and Hayden Smith, 18, along with the two juveniles, were charged with felony criminal mischief (common scheme) and three of the individuals were charged with obstructing a peace officer for lying during their interviews.

• A Laurel School District parent was trespassed from Laurel School District property by unanimous vote from the trustees. The female parent had been arrested outside Graff School in October and had repeatedly been verbally abusive to District Office and Graff School secretaries in November. The female received permission to attend the school board meeting to address the recommendation but declined to attend.

• LHS NASA–HUNCH program students worked on a project that will be going to the International Space Station. Johnson Space Center’s Stacy Hale (HUNCH founder) was on hand at LHS to help the students create the flight hardware to be used by astronauts during their space walks. 

The students fabricated 190 wire ties out of heat and pressure resistant copper that are essentially the space version of zip ties. The students were set up in different stations and fabricated the ties in assembly–line fashion over two days. The students were also able to sign the lid of a Single Stowage Locker that will hold the ties during transport to the ISS.

Category:

Upcoming Events

Thursday, June 4, 2020
First Thursday, 5 p.m., City of Laurel Council Chamber
Monday, June 8, 2020
2nd Mondays, 6:30 p.m., at Wood's Powr-Grip, 908 West Main St., use the west entrance, open to the public. 
Monday, June 8, 2020
2nd Tuesday, 6 p.m., Laurel Public Library
Monday, June 8, 2020
Mondays, 1:30 p.m., 201 1/2 E Main St.
Monday, June 8, 2020
Second & fourth Monday at 11 a.m., Big Horn Resort, 1801 Majestic Lane, 281-8455
Monday, June 8, 2020
Free, 2nd Monday, 3-5 p.m., Frontier Cancer Center, 1315 Golden Valley Cir., Billings, 800-227-2345

Poll

Are you growing a vegetable garden?