2021 Year in review: Part 1

Thursday, January 6, 2022
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Montana Rail Link’s two special engines thanking veterans and essential workers passed through Laurel last week. In addition to the tribute locomotives, the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, in conjunction with Montana Rail Link, has made a $50,000 donation to Warriors and Quiet Waters and a $50,000 donation to Montana No Kid Hungry.

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Laurel High School’s Drama team won the Class A State Title on Saturday and the Speech and Debate team brought home 3rd place. Two Speech and Debate teammates and two Drama teammates brought home individual State Championships as well. On the left are Sarah Thomae and Ava Fox (1st in Public Forum Debate), and on the right are Abigail Molm and Katie LeBrun (1st in Dramatic Theatre).

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AnimaLodge Pet Technican Madi Achten gives some loves to “Theodore” during the controlled chaos that is the Doggie Day Camp while “Hank” and “Cora” wait their turn. The Pet Resort opened a climate–controlled indoor day care facility and added four live webcams so owners can watch their pets play throughout the day.

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Officer Jackson Booth with Laurel’s newest officer Colt during their swearing–in ceremony at a Laurel City Council meeting. Both officers received badges; Officer Booth as a K9 handler and Colt as a drug detection and tracking specialist.

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Laurel Middle School 8th grader Breenan Corey accepts congratulations from Yellowstone County Commissioner Don Jones at the MS after he qualified for and competed in the virtual State Spelling Bee. Breenan won the Middle School Spelling Bee then took 2nd at the Yellowstone County contest to qualify for State.

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Rob, Julie and Heston Schessler sold the ready–mix portion of their business and are operating as Schessler Excavation & Septic Medic.

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At Monday’s school board meeting trustees and school administrators recognized staff members who retired in 2021. From the left are Board Chair Karen Teeters, District Technology Coordinator Wendy Strauch, West School Custodian Debbra Harris, Graff School Librarian Pam Kane, West School 3rd grade teacher Kara McDonald, Graff School 4th grade teacher Tim McKinney and Superintendent Linda Filpula.

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Laurel High School was recognized nationally in December as a National Distinguished School for 2020 by the National Association of ESEA State Program Administrators. LHS was the only high school in Montana to received the award and were honored for closing the achievement gap between student groups for two or more consecutive years. At halftime of Tuesday’s girls basketball game LHS staff were saluted by the community for their achievements. From the left are Shawnda Zahara, Principal; Lisa Condon, CTE Teacher; Mitzi Carter, Paraprofessional; Kayla Hallock, Spanish Teacher; Jayme Bennington, Science Teacher; Brandi Fox, Counselor and Matt Carey, Assistant Principal

January

Laurel High School’s Honors Civics classes won the State competition in the “We the People,” contest on Jan. 19.

The classes have accepted the invitation to compete in the National Finals, held virtually April 23 through the 26th.

The Laurel students are proud to represent Laurel and the rest of Montana.

The students that participated are: Eli Aby, Lane Arrowsmith, Hannah Bickel, Bailey Chapman, Keagan Crowley, Kolby Gibbs, Trynadee Goldsberry, Kadee Grammar, Savanna Keightley, Kendra King, Easton Kyhl, Laney Leeds, Morgan Maack, Paige Maynard, Andria Mourich, Kayla Parsons, Kyle Robertus, Garrett Rose, Jenna Scott, Malie Smith, Josephine Teegarden, Colton Trostle, Connor Ulschak and Logan Vincent.

February

The Laurel High School Drama team won the Class A State Championship and the Speech/ Debate team improved on their 4th place finish last year, earning a spot on the podium by taking 3rd out of 20 Class A schools.

The 2021 State Championship was held virtually Jan. 28– 30 at the Laurel Middle School and hosted by Sidney High School. Twenty Class A schools competed for the team sweepstakes award in speech/debate and drama. Laurel was the only school to place in the top three in both team sweepstakes, extending the program’s streak to five years in a row where they have finished in the top four in both categories.

This year saw two duos win their respective categories with sophomores Katie LeBrun and Abigail Molm the State Champions in Dramatic Theatre and juniors Ava Fox and Sarah Thomae bringing home the Public Forum Debate title. Molm also took 2nd in Pantomime and LeBrun finished 4th in Classical Theatre.

After Gov. Greg Gianforte rescinded former Gov. Steve Bullock’s statewide mask mandate on Feb. 12, and only a “recommendation” remained from the Yellowstone County Unified Health Command to wear them in schools, the Laurel School District was thrown into chaos this week over questions of whether or not masks should still be required in all schools.

Strong opinions on both sides led the School Board to schedule a special meeting Feb. 17 at 5 p.m. at the Administration Building to discuss, clarify and possibly implement district policy.

In a May 2020 meeting the Laurel trustees adopted Board Policy 1905 which addressed Student, Staff and Community Health and Safety. The School District did not require students and staff to wear masks but, of course, all Laurel schools were closed to onsite learning entirely at that time with all spring sports cancelled.

On Sept. 14 the board revisited the policy and added “will strive” to maintain social distancing, etc., to the language. Along with Bullock’s July 15 mask mandate and county health recommendations, masks requirements and social distancing protocols were implemented in the schools.

On Jan. 11 of this year a Memorandum of Agreement between the district and teachers’ union (Laurel Unified Education Association) was passed which states, in part: “The District and all teachers shall follow Center for Disease Control recommendations and comply with all state and county health directives for maintaining workplace safety and the safety of students….” The MOA is valid through June 30, 2021.

Because the CDC still recommends masks, concerns have been raised by teachers and staff that making masks optional violates this agreement on workplace safety and constitutes a change in working conditions. Whether or not this would be a violation of the MOA with the school district is likely the most contentious topic for the special meeting if the mask mandate in the district remains optional.

Superintendent Linda Filpula said “I have been consistent with the message to require masks in schools, but I have to follow board policy. I am advocating for requiring students and staff to wear them.” She said her goal has always been “having onsite learning and keeping the students and staff safe.”

Maison Deacon Ostwald, 21, of Laurel, and Trevor Wayne Deal, 22, of Bridger, were rescued Saturday, Feb. 20, after spending two nights in the Beartooth Mountains east of the Top of the World Store.

The two men had gone snowmobiling the morning of Thursday, Feb. 18, and contacted a friend at 5 p.m. to report one of their sleds had become disabled, according to the Park County Sheriff report on Facebook. The men told the friend they were trying to get back to the highway on their own. At that time Park County Search and Rescue was activated and deployed to the area. Volunteer members of the Cody Country Snowmobile Association and Snow Search also searched through the night Thursday, but had to suspend operations at 4 a.m. The search resumed on Friday morning with additional assistance from the Wyoming Game and Fish, Shoshone National Forest and more volunteers. Two Blackhawk helicopters from the Cheyenne Army Air National Guard and the Malmstrom Air Force Base joined the search. According to the report, over 50 volunteers on snowmobiles were part of the search effort.

According to the report, “After the aerial survey, the Huey landed east of the base of Table Mountain and dropped off the PCSAR members in order to return to Cody for fuel. As soon as the Huey departed the area, the ground teams heard Deal and Ostwald shouting for help from an area of spruce trees several hundred yards up the mountain. Snowmobilers’ immediately began the steep ascent, eventually reaching the victims. Both men appeared to be in relatively good shape. They were exhausted, dehydrated, and hypothermic. They were brought down the mountain and evacuated via the Huey to a waiting ambulance from Cody Regional Hospital. Deal refused treatment while Ostwald was transported to the hospital and eventually flown to the Idaho Falls Burn Center for treatment of severe frostbite.”

March

After a five-and-a-half day trial, Diego Hernandez, 24, was found guilty of deliberate homicide for the murder of Lori Bray, 57, of Laurel, Oct. 1, 2019.

The jury took about two hours to deliberate the case which was held in the courtroom of District Court Judge Michael Moses in Billings.

Bray was last seen on surveillance cameras giving Hernandez a ride at the end of her shift about 12:30 a.m. at Cedar Ridge Casino. Her disappearance was noted soon afterwards and friend and casino manager Cathy Culp quickly organized a search party which began searching for Bray early that morning. Her body was found later off Yard Office Road, north of Alder Ridge Trailer Park by a man riding an ATV.

In addition to the circumstantial evidence presented, DNA evidence tied Hernandez both to Bray’s abandoned vehicle and her body. Hernandez’s attorneys did not present a defense, although argued in closing that investigators made premature assumptions pointing to Hernandez’s guilt.

The Laurel School Board voted 4–2 to amend the school Reopening Plan for the 2020–2021 school year and make masks required for the remainder of the school year (Board Chair Karen Teeters and Brittani Hunter voted against the item). The Laurel Unified Education Association threatened legal action if masks weren’t mandatory until a Memorandum of Agreement be tween the board and teacher’s union expires on June 30, 2021.

The housing situation in the United States is dire for many tenants and their landlords, largely because of COVID-19. Rents and housing prices keep climbing for residents while the economy begins to recover, although some folks still haven’t rebounded financially making it difficult for them to pay increased housing costs. The situation is playing out in Montana as well, including in Laurel and Park City.

Billings investor and restaurateur, Shawn Moua, recently purchased the apartment building at 921 E. 4th Street in Laurel. While he plans to make improvements to the property this spring, tenants have complained that he hasn’t taken care of basic maintenance such as snow removal, and he is raising their rent about 50 percent.

“I had to raise the rent to cover expenses,” Moua told the Outlook Tuesday. “My agenda is to clean up the property in the spring. I recognize I didn’t get the snow taken care of, but I just acquired the building three months ago.”

Since then, Moua said he has replaced the roof. “The increase in rent is justifiable; I have to look out for myself and be able to pay the mortgage.”

One tenant who Moua said rents a two-bedroom for $650 will see an increase to $950, beginning April 1. Moua also pays the utilities because the building is on one meter.

“I gave all the tenants 45 days notice of the rent increase,” he said. “Everything I am doing is within the law.”

April

There was a full house at Tuesday evening’s Laurel City Council Workshop meeting. The mayor and all councilors were in attendance.

D.J. Poolet made a presentation during the public comment portion of the meeting in support of allowing Laurel residents to have chickens. She discussed the benefits of urban chickens to the community. She addressed potential objections by telling councilors that with a system requiring permits, limiting the number to 6 hens which must be kept in a coop, and other standards the city could impose, there won’t be a problem with noise or smell. She noted that a number of cities in Montana, including Billings, allow urban flocks. For more information, visit “Chickens in the City Limits of Laurel,” Facebook page. Although, it wasn’t clear, the subject may be on the next workshop agenda for discussion.

According to a press release dated Tuesday, April 20, North-Western Energy will build a new 175 megawatt reciprocating internal combustion engine (RICE) natural gas plant in Laurel. There were no details on where in Laurel the plant will be or how many people will be employed by the plant after it’s built.

Laurel’s plant is only one part of the company’s plan to acquire 325 megawatts of “dispatchable capacity resources.” NWE also proposes to purchase of 100 megawatts of electricity from Powerex Corp. That electricity will be generated primarily from hydroelectric resources. The company also has a contract pending for what will be the largest battery-storage project in the state.

“This resource portfolio addresses a key portion of our immediate need for generation capacity while also allowing us to make progress toward our goal of an energy supply portfolio in Montana that reduces the carbon intensity of our electric generation by 90% by 2045,” said NorthWestern Energy Chief Executive Officer Bob Rowe.

According to the release, “NorthWestern Energy expects to submit an application for approval of the Laurel Generating Station and the 20-year contract for the pending Energy Storage Project to the Montana Public Service Commission on or about May 14, 2021.” They anticipate the regulatory process to take approximately nine months.

A deadly carjacking in Billings early led to a pursuit which started in Laurel and ended in Billings after a female suspect was apprehended and a male died of a self–inflicted gunshot wound after a nine–hour standoff.

At 12:25 p.m. on April 23, Laurel dispatch received a suspicious vehicle complaint from Wood’s Powr–Grip and the vehicle took off when an officer arrived.

Dispatch was notified of the pursuit which started eastbound on West Main St. The van took a left on 5th Ave. heading north before turning left on West Maryland and continuing until the dead end when the van crashed through a fence and momentarily lost the officer.

By this time three other Laurel police officers had joined the pursuit and the van was located on Golf Course Road heading south where it got on I–90 heading towards Billings.

Yellowstone County deputies and Montana Highway patrol troopers joined as speeds reached in excess of 100 mph.

The pursuit continued on Shiloh before the van crashed and the occupants fled. Kristy Lynn Chavez, 31, was subdued with a police taser and taken into custody while Michael Lee McClure, 26, barricaded himself into a house. After a nine–hour standoff law enforcement breached the Ridgewood Lane home and shot McClure before he killed himself with a self–inflicted gunshot wound.

The body of Dennis Gresham, 33, of Sheridan Wyoming was discovered in the van. He had been murdered by McClure at the Yellowstone River Campground that morning during the carjacking incident.

May

On May 20 the Dallas–based non-profit organization Carry the Load bus arrived in Laurel for staff and marchers to walk and climb the two-mile route to the national cemetery. The Laurel City Fire Department gave the marchers a red light and siren send off.

Carry the Load staff honored Ed and Charlene Saunders by dedicating the march to Ed and Charlene’s late fathers: both WWII combat veterans of the Army and Navy respectively. The Saunders marched with the names of their fathers and other family on an official Carry the Load panel.

After farewells at Yellowstone National Cemetery, Carry the Load staff and bus went west along their mountain states route. They plan on returning in 2022 to again honor those at rest in Yellowstone National Cemetery.

June

A joint investigation between the Laurel Police Department, Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Department and Yellowstone County Animal Control resulted in an arrest and felony aggravated animal cruelty charges for a Laurel man accused of torturing and killing cats.

The investigation began on May 18 and resulted in Sean Robert Robinson’s arrest after a drug warrant was served by county officials. Officers and deputies were granted consent to search Robinson’s garage and discovered more evidence of animal cruelty.

He was arrested and faces two charges of felony aggravated animal cruelty and theft. He currently is in YCDF with no bond. He also has five outstanding warrants for failure to appear.

A Park City landlord is being taken to district court by county officials for allegedly dumping raw sewage from his rental properties, compromising the water quality of multiple locations, including the Park City school.

Gary R. Weitz is also accused of continuing to dump sewage despite multiple site visits and letters of violation from local and state environmental officials.

In a civil complaint titled “abatement of public health nuisance” filed Friday, June 4, in district court by Deputy Stillwater County Attorney Ryan Addis on the behalf of the Stillwater County Health Board, the following allegations against Weitz are set forth:

Weitz operates rentals that are comprised of two double-story buildings, one single-story building and four single-wide mobile homes that are collectively referred to as the Homestead Property. The property has at least 15 rental units that house approximately 39 tenants. According to the complaint, tenants have reported the water quantity and quality as “inadequate.”

Upon recommendation from the County Fire Warden, Yellowstone County Fire Chiefs, and Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, the Yellowstone County Board of County Commissioners implemented “Stage II” fire restrictions. These restrictions provide that generating fires for all but extremely limited exceptions is unlawful. The restrictions went into effect on Wednesday, June 23.

As the community is aware, south-central Montana is in a period of exceptionally hot, dry, and windy weather for this time of year. Neighboring counties have already been hit hard by the devastation that wildfires can cause. As a result, the County Commissioners are taking reasonable precautions to attempt to prevent the potential loss of property, resources, and even life, that can come from man-made fires.

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