Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 5, 2014

Record-Eagle’s Top 10 news stories of 2013


Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — EDITOR’S NOTE: Residents of the Grand Traverse region witnessed triumph and tragedy in 2013, ranging from senseless, heart-rending incidents and government failures to messages of hope and moments of pointed community debate. Together, they comprise the Record-Eagle’s Top 10 news stories of 2013.

1) Bicyclist Kelly Boyce killed by unknown motorist

A bicyclist’s hit-and-run death in July sparked an outpouring of grief, but the crime remains unsolved after a six-month investigation aided by a massive community response.

Kelly Ann Boyce, 29, was pedaling home from work early July 5 when a motorist struck her in the 600 block of Washington Street. Neighbors heard her screams as a vehicle dragged her more than a block to a Railroad Street alleyway, where she lay dying within sight of her home and asking for her husband, Paul Hurlbert.

The story gripped Traverse City residents: police received hundreds of tips, a $50,000 reward was established, rumors spread about potential links to other hit-and-run cases and bicyclists debated whether the city is friend or foe of two-wheeled transportation.

But most of all, the city’s residents mourned a young newlywed in love with life, her friends and family, dancing, music, pandas, her two dogs and her husband.

“I was a fun-loving idiot who got lucky,” Hurlbert told a crowd of hundreds gathered in F&M Park for a memorial service one week after Boyce’s death. “She saw something in me and kept at it until her loving ways started making sense to me.”

The crowd took to their bicycles and stretched across downtown Traverse City. They stopped Front Street traffic for a funeral procession in defiance of the motorist who sped off and continues to elude police.

Witnesses described the suspect’s vehicle as a dark pickup truck or sport utility vehicle, and most of the 600-plus tips regarded vehicles with similar descriptions. Detectives grappled with the flood of tips with help from state police and FBI agents, performed neighborhood canvasses, collected bar tabs and hotel bills and inspected video cameras along the vehicle’s likely escape route.

Several potential suspects emerged, but most were cleared from suspicion. Traverse City police Capt. Mike Ayling told the Record-Eagle last week that detectives “exclusively” are investigating a suspect from a new tip.

Detectives didn’t discount eerie similarities between Boyce’s death and two hit-and-run cases from 2010 and 2012. All involved women who rode their bicycles east in downtown Traverse City around the time of the National Cherry Festival and were struck from behind, perhaps intentionally, by a dark vehicle.

But investigators said other evidence instead pointed to a drunken driver, someone who perhaps left a July 4 holiday celebration.

Boyce’s family and friends, along with some perfect strangers, erected a makeshift memorial, including a white “ghost bike” to symbolize a fallen bicyclist, in the alley where she was found. Some neighbors complained, but Boyce’s family wanted the reminders to remain visible so long as the killer is free.

“We’re never going to give up hope and find who this person is,” said Boyce’s sister Nicole Nostrandt. “We will never stop. Until this person is brought to justice, I can guarantee my family will not stop.”

2) New Clinch Park riddled with flaws

A splash pad that spewed sewage-contaminated water, and an agreement to create the Bijou by the Bay movie theater — a document that city commissioners failed before its adoption — kept controversy flowing for much of the summer on Traverse City’s waterfront.

Documents obtained by the Record-Eagle exposed a host of flaws in design and construction of the city’s $2.9 million renovation of Clinch Park and officials’ failure to obtain basic permits prior to its June opening. A sewage backup discovered June 30 exposed the most egregious, a direct connection between the splash pad’s water reservoir and a sanitary sewer line that resulted in dousing an unknown number of children with contaminated water.

The city’s design firm, Hamilton Anderson Architects, failed to obtain a construction permit for the water feature from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality prior to construction. DEQ officials cited “political pressure” for giving the city permission to operate the water feature without first reviewing plans. Documents show state Rep. Wayne Schmidt intervened in an effort to reopen the permit-less splash pad.

Other problems discovered since the park opened include: rain water pooling on the splash pad and in the tunnel; cracks in the concrete on the splash pad, and frequent filter-clogging because of debris build-up. City commissioners are expected to approve a $7,000 contract with an engineering firm to recommend fixes for the park and help determine who should pay for them.

City officials made sure the Traverse City Film Festival officials obtained all required permits before they debuted the converted Con Foster Museum building as the Bijou by the Bay theater. But during the hurried $1 million renovation, city commissioners neglected to read a management agreement for use of the Clinch Park property before they approved it.

Commissioners later discovered the document, drafted by city staff, contained provisions commissioners hadn’t approved, including: staff approval of a lighted marquee; a painted yellow brick road through the park, and a vestibule attached to the front of the historic building.

The project also sparked a lawsuit that challenged the exclusive management agreement as disposal of city parkland in violation of the city charter, but a judge last month upheld the city’s actions and dismissed the suit.

City commissioners eventually approved a free-standing marquee, but decisions about the yellow brick road, vestibule, and other potential changes to the building and grounds remains unresolved.

3) NMC, TCAPS millages tumble; GT Road Commission wins

It was a tough year for local government institutions whose leaders sought local property tax increases. That is, aside from one surprising success for the Grand Traverse County Road Commission.

Voters in November approved the road commission’s 1-mill ballot proposal by about 110 votes. Two Traverse City Area Public Schools millage requests and a Northwestern Michigan College proposal for more modest tax increases were defeated in 2013.

TCAPS’ main millage proposal sought a .2-mill increase to raise $35.2-million for capital improvements across the district. It lost by about 250 votes, while a second, $13-million, .09-mill proposal to rebuild Central High School’s outdated auditorium lost by roughly 2,800 votes.

The main proposal was the result of months of work by TCAPS administrators and school board members who mulled survey data, focus group answers and community leaders’ input after a $100-million millage proposal lost at the polls in 2012. TCAPS officials thought they were going back to voters in 2013 with a more palatable request, but the result one year later was much the same, despite a slimmer margin of defeat.

TCAPS board members are now considering drastic changes to the district’s long-term capital plan after two millage defeats in as many years. Changes that could be studied include closing Interlochen Elementary School and raising the district’s millage rate to pay off the sale of bonds already approved by voters in past elections.

NMC fared even worse than TCAPS in its 2013 millage campaign. NMC board members placed a .4-mill request before voters in a single-item, special August election. Community college officials originally said they decided to seek the special election -- at a cost of $68,000 in public funds -- because they didn’t think they could get an approved November tax increase on winter tax bills.

But Record-Eagle stories revealed NMC officials, including President Tim Nelson, learned otherwise in April. Nelson and others never mentioned that fact to board members, and board members never followed up by asking whether a November election was an option.

Voters eventually rejected the NMC request by a tally of about 7,800 to 3,900.

Amid the two failed education millages came the road commission, whose board members did not even decide to ask for a tax increase until July. Now the road board’s successful 1-mill increase is expected to raise $4.4 annually for the next three years.

4) Elberta woman accused of trying to kill autistic daughter

An Elberta woman stands accused of trying to kill her autistic daughter in a failed murder-suicide attempt. The case shocked Benzie County residents, drew international media attention and sparked debate over the challenges of raising autistic children.

On Sept. 3, a sheriff’s deputy found Kelli Rai Stapleton, 45, and her daughter Issy, 14, unconscious inside a van parked off a wooded two-track in Blaine Township. Both suffered carbon monoxide poisoning from two burning charcoal grills placed between the seats.

Issy Stapleton lingered in a coma for days and awoke with permanent brain damage. Kelli Stapleton quickly recovered and remains jailed awaiting trial in 19th Circuit Court on an attempted murder charge.

The incident sent shock waves through the tight-knit Frankfort and Elberta communities, whose residents rallied in February and March to raise money to help the Stapletons pay for months of Issy’s expensive therapy. Kelli Stapleton penned a blog called “The Status Woe” that chronicled her experiences raising Issy, an intelligent but abusive child, and their struggles with doctors, bureaucrats and school officials.

“I have to admit that I’m suffering from a severe case of battle fatigue,” Stapleton wrote just hours before the incident.

Court documents state Stapleton lured Issy into the vehicle with a promise they were going camping and would cook s’mores. She then drugged Issy using a larger-than-normal dose of her autism medication before lighting the grills, authorities said. Stapleton told authorities she thought the best solution was if they both “went to heaven,” according to court documents.

Issy continues what her family called a “roller coaster recovery” at home with her father Matt Stapleton and two siblings.

“Physically, she continues to improve. We haven’t seen a lot of regression,” said her aunt Sarah Ross. “There’s been a few things that have come and gone, but in general things are trending upward.”

In December, the criminal case against Kelli Stapleton moved one step forward after a state psychologist determined she’s mentally fit to stand trial. A trial date has not been set.

5) TC Mayor Estes guilty of drunken driving (tie)

Traverse City Mayor Michael Estes’ arrest for drunken driving following his appearance at a neighborhood candidate forum raised questions across the community about his fitness for office prior to the November election. But voters nonetheless decided to give him a second chance.

A city police officer observed a vehicle driven by Estes, 63, weaving down Eighth Street near Rose Street the evening of Oct. 23. Estes failed field sobriety tests and his blood alcohol tested 0.12, above the state’s .08 legal limit for driving. Estes told the Record-Eagle he was driving home after the forum and admitted he had been drinking alcohol before the event. Estes apologized for his actions and then pledged never to discuss the incident in public again. He hasn’t.

Debate raged after his arrest as residents questioned if he should resign as mayor or decline to serve if elected to a second consecutive two-year term. But Estes, with the encouragement of his supporters, stayed in the race and defeated challenger Rick Buckhalter, who ran a low-key, unfunded campaign. Estes captured 57 percent of the ballots cast.

Several voters told the Record-Eagle they had concerns about Estes, but were not willing to cast their lot with Buckhalter. More than one in 10 voters skipped voting for mayor and another 215 people chose a write-in candidate.

Estes avoided the possibility of being removed from office by Gov. Rick Snyder for being drunk when he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of impaired driving, a standard offer from prosecutors for a first offense.

But 86th District Court Judge Michael Stepka disagreed it was a first-offense situation. Stepka cited the discovery that Estes was involved in an alcohol-involved accident in Antrim County in 1994 in which he pleaded guilty to reckless driving. Stepka also referred to Estes’ acknowledgment in the court that he had been drinking both before and immediately after the debate when he sentenced Estes to a probationary period that exceeded sentencing guidelines by six months.

Stepka praised Estes for his honesty in his substance abuse assessment before sentencing the newly elected mayor to 18 months of probation, alcohol treatment programs, fines, and daily breath tests among other restrictions. Stepka said Estes’ honestly will allow him to work with probation officers to “hopefully turn the alcohol issue around and better your life.”

5) Festival Fatigue (tie)

Summer 2013 was a busy and festive one for Traverse City and its public parks.

There was the Cherry Festival, the Traverse City Film Festival, the Traverse City Music Festival, the TC Waterman Challenge and Expo, the Bayside Festival, and the Taste of Traverse City Festival. About 30 days of summer were spent setting up for and holding festivals on Traverse City’s Open Space and Clinch Park.

Festival-related hullabaloo left some residents with Festival Fatigue, a term crafted by people who live near the festival sites as a way to describe what they referred to as the tediousness of so many summer festivals and the accompanying noise and crowds.

Traverse City resident Lou Colombo took action and filed an application to hold “The Quiet Space Festival of 2014” --- a non-festival festival -- for 11 weekends in the summer.

City officials denied Colombo’s application, but his gesture set off a series of discussions between city commission members, local residents, event promoters, hoteliers and tourism industry advocates.

Festival critics contended the events they took up too much time and space, and effectively monopolized the summer.

“The frequency of festivals is getting out of hand,” Boardman neighborhood resident Mary Meredith said at a city commission meeting in September. “As a city taxpayer we are supporting the parks and so often we can’t even use them.”

Others argued that those bothered by the festivals were a vocal minority and that festivals bring great economic benefit to the area.

“There are a lot of people downtown who moved here, live here, and enjoy these events,” Traverse City resident Mike Dow said at a November meeting.

City commissioners in December formally weighed in on one aspect of the debate when they voted 5 to 2 to restrict the use of the Open Space to four summer festivals.

Their amendment would allow the National Cherry Festival and the Traverse City Film Festival to continue, as well as one high-impact event in June and one in August in Clinch Park and the Open Space.

7) Spate of drowning deaths across region

At least seven people drowned in local waters during the spring and summer of 2013, and their deaths cumulatively spurred discussion about water safety.

Three of the seven people died in Lake Michigan; the others died in inland lakes. Three died from so-called “dry drowning,” in which cold water constricts the respiratory system and victims are unable to breathe, even though there’s no water in their lungs.

The deaths drew attention to a YMCA poll that found 40 percent of area seventh graders were unable to swim 25 yards. The poll, and the unusually high rate of swimming deaths in the area, prompted the YMCA to install pools and resources to annually teach 2,000 kids to swim.

The drownings also prompted the American Red Cross of Northwest Michigan to apply for a $6,750 grant for a drowning prevention initiative, which it received.

Traverse City West Senior High School student Owen Williamson’s May 31 death in North Twin Lake called into question whether Grand Traverse County officials had adequate safeguards in place for county parks.

County commissioners discussed erecting warning signs around lakes, designating specific swim areas and keeping safety equipment nearby.

Williamson’s friends’ parents also questioned emergency responders’ efforts. Students on the scene said they, not emergency personnel, towed a life jacket and inflatable raft to Williamson.

Another high profile water-related death occurred in Lake Michigan off Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in July, when Stephen William-Osler Easter, 8, fell from a canoe and died of hypothermia. Easter, an Ann Arbor native, was on a trip with his father at the time.

Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich said Lake Michigan swimmers need to be aware of dangerous cold temperatures and changes in lake currents.

“The number one thing people can do is have respect for water, and then always, always, always, always wear a life preserver,” Borkovich said in July.

8) Street homeless numbers grow

The rising number of regional homeless people spurred advocates in 2013 to explore more permanent solutions for the nearly 100 people who live on the street.

Safe Harbor, a network of churches, provides shelter during the colder months, but increased crowding underscores the need for affordable housing in Traverse City, said Peter Starkel, a Safe Harbor’s advisory committee member.

“If the numbers keep growing at the same percentage, there just won’t be anywhere for them to go,” Starkel said.

A Safe Harbor volunteer said crowding at the shelters is also stressful for the homeless who sleep there.

“They’re confined, and the space is limited for them,” said Jeff Lewis, a Safe Harbor steering committee member. “Like anybody else, when space gets invaded, they can fly off the handle.”

Last fall, Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley decided to lock the jail lobby after working hours, effectively shutting off an informal “last resort” for a small number of street homeless deemed too aggressive to stay at church shelters. Advocates worried that the shut-out homeless could freeze to death outside, but Bensley said in a December interview that jail staff no longer wanted to put up with recurring bad behavior. He added it wasn’t the jail’s responsibility to house those people.

Goodwill’s street outreach coordinator Ryan Hannon, overwhelmed by the numbers of street homeless, formed a grassroots group Street Advocate with Starkel and Christie Minervini. Their goal is to create a volunteer force who will work with homeless folks, one-on-one, to find a permanent home.

Meanwhile, Greg Stone and others are raising money to open “Dann’s House,” a residential option for chronic, homeless alcoholics.

Michelle Fehrenbach and her 1987 Traverse City Senior High School classmates proved the efforts of a few can make a difference. Their formerly homeless classmate, Joe Sersaw, just marked a one-year anniversary living in a mobile home they bought for him. He still requires their extensive support.

9) TCAPS inks deal with Chinese firm

Traverse City Area Public Schools has long welcomed international exchange students, but an enterprising agreement inked with China’s largest K-12 private education group in 2013 marks the most ambitious steps to date toward the district’s self-stated goal of increasing students’ global competency.

Officials from TCAPS and the Beijing-based Weiming Education Group signed a memorandum of understanding in October that allows for up to 200 Weiming students to study in TCAPS high schools and Northwestern Michigan College annually for years to come.

TCAPS officials hope the agreement will bring a heightened understanding of the world outside of Michigan to local students.

The partnership also could result in up to $2 million tuition dollars -- the for-profit Weiming group will pay $10,000 annually in tuition per student -- and additional state school aid money for TCAPS if those numbers are fully realized.

But things will start slowly in the 2014-15 school year, when district officials expect dozens, not hundreds, of Weiming students to enroll in TCAPS and NMC classes. How many Chinese students travel the 6,000-plus miles to Traverse City ultimately will depend on how many choose to study at TCAPS as opposed to other American districts with which Weiming has inked deals.

District officials are recruiting host families for the 2014-15 school year. TCAPS will partner with NMC to provide “alternative housing” if the district can’t find enough host families, TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins said in early December.

Officials from TCAPS and Weiming have said the partnership is a work in progress. It will change and evolve with time, and it eventually could give TCAPS students an opportunity to study at Weiming-affiliated schools in China.

"It’s not just a one-way street,” Laurel Capobianco, vice president of Weiming USA, said last month.

10) CMH whistle blower gets a $510,000 settlement

Northern Lakes Community Mental Health agreed to a $510,000 legal settlement with a whistle blower who lost his job after revealing that physically and mentally disabled CMH clients were put in harm’s way on public buses.

Jonathan Bennett, former director of Northern Lakes’ Office of Recipient Rights, settled with the agency at the end of May.

Bennett was dismissed in October 2012. His lawsuit claimed the agency harassed and retaliated against him after his investigation showed assaults, sexual misconduct, and self-harm among unsupervised CMH clients who rode Bay Area Transportation Authority buses. The buses are contracted by CMH to take clients to and from training and work sites.

Greg Paffhouse, CMH’s executive director, maintained that Bennett’s investigation played no role in the firing. He said there had been longstanding and deep conflicts between Bennett and CMH staff and adult foster care home workers. Those conflicts hampered the staff’s ability to communicate with Bennett and to do their jobs.

Bennett, fired after 15 years on the job, was a staff “watch dog” of sorts, responsible for protecting the rights of clients served by the six-county agency.

His investigation was triggered by a serious assault in August of 2011 of a profoundly mentally disabled woman by another CMH client over a 90-minute bus ride. The woman’s service plan, which lists a client’s treatment and support needs, required she be supervised “at all times,” yet a bus aide wasn’t assigned.

CMH held several meetings after learning of the assault, but aides weren’t put on buses until Nov. 30 under pressure of the Department of Human Services’ Adult Protective Services.

In March, the board of Northern Lakes CMH reluctantly issued a written reprimand to Paffhouse in response to a state Department of Community Health recommendation. The agency maintained Paffhouse should be held accountable for leaving vulnerable riders unsupervised until Nov. 30.

Staff writers MATT TROUTMAN, BRIAN McGILLIVARY, MICHAEL WALTON, MICHELLE MERLIN and ANNE STANTON contributed to this report.