2014 Year in Review
With 2014 nearly in the books, the SCN offers the following summary of some of the county’s biggest stories of the year.
Elections can be dry. But not this year in Stillwater County. Three local races were contested -- Stillwater County Attorney, Stillwater County Justice of the Peace and Stillwater County Treasurer. And each one brought a flare of drama.
The county attorney race was decided at the June primary, with Chief Deputy County Attorney Nancy Rohde soundly beating challenger Paula Saye, who both ran as Republicans.
But Saye surfaced again just before the November general election when a group of citizens mounted a strong write-in rally. Saye drew just 132 write-in votes to Rohde’s 3,129, but it wouldn’t have mattered had Saye beat Rohde because she did not register as a write-in candidate with the state by the deadline date.
In the treasurer race, Reed Point’s Jerry Friend ousted incumbent Donald Strizki 1,021 votes to 724. Friend was at one time a county commissioner. Strizki was appointed to the position following a mid-term vacancy.
The justice of the peace race was intense and in the end, decided by just 89 votes.
After long-time Judge Marilyn Kober announced her retirement from the bench after three decades of service, three candidates entered the fray. Attorney Gordon Williams, state Department of Investigations Agent Lee Cornell and Clerk of Court Deputy Melissa Ranstrom threw their hats in the ring. Williams began serving as Kober’s judge pro tem (temporary judge) and after the primary, it was Williams and Cornell advancing to the general election. Williams campaigned on continuing the well-functioning court. Cornell campaigned on cleaning the court up to run more efficiently and fairly. Cornell emerged the victor.
In a bizarre incident, a judge issued an order of protection against current Stillwater County Treasurer Donald Strizki following an alleged assault against one his employees last summer. The employee alleged that following a discussion the two had about how Strizki had handled a customer, she left the office and was followed by Strizki who yelled at her to “shut up,” got up from his desk, ran at her and allegedly said “I am going to punch you in the face,” according to court documents.
The employee told Strizki to go ahead and punch her, to which he allegedly responded “If I did I would kill you,” according to those same documents.
The employee reported the incident to the sheriff’s office, which conducted an investigation and submitted its findings to the County Attorney’s Office. Justice of the Peace Marilyn Kober ordered that the order of protection stay in place until January, at which time a newly elected treasurer will take office.
In order to allow him to continue working, Strizki was moved to what commissioners refer to as the “West Annex” (old hospital) and was allowed to work in the courthouse only before and after the employee was present.
In July a Stillwater County man became the state’s first Hantavirus victim in the state this year. The man, who was not identified, was in his 60s and involved in ranching/farming. Thankfully, he recovered.
115 pounds of pot on I-90
A routine traffic stop on I-90 between Columbus and Park City in April ended with authorities finding 115 pounds of marijuana and a married couple committed to the Montana Department of Corrections. A Montana Highway Patrol trooper stopped the car for going 89 mph in a 75 mph zone and noticed the couple was very nervous.
When questioned separately about where they had been and where they were going, they gave different answers.
The trooper asked Stillwater County Sheriff’s Deputy Randy Smith to respond with his K9, Jordy. Jordy alerted to the presence of drugs and the car was searched after a warrant was obtained.
The actual street value of the marijuana seized in the case was $736,000, according to the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation.
Arrest Made in Absarokee Homicide Case
Just short of one year after the July 2013 homicide of Absarokee resident Forest Dana, a man was arrested and charged with one felony county of negligent homicide and one felony count of tampering or fabricating physical evidence. Michael Holtz, 21, was charged following a joint sheriff’s office-DCI investigation that turned up the victim’s DNA under Holtz’s vehicle, according to court documents. It is believed Dana was killed when he was run over by a car. Authorities allege that Holtz tried to destroy evidence on the car by crashing it into a tree. Holtz posted a $250,000 bond and is free pending the outcome of the case. The Attorney General’s Office is assisting in the prosecution.
Columbus School Resource Officer
Columbus Police Officer Jacob Ward became the first school resource officer (SRO) for Columbus schools. The idea for the position came from the board of the trustees, who then approached Columbus Police Chief Bill Pronovost. Goals for such a position are to try and help with bullying, build a positive rapport between police and kids, and the like.
While Ward has dealt with some substance issues and behavior issues, his presence is being made big through other activities.
For the first time in Stillwater County, a group of local kids were among those at Camp P.O.S.T.C.A.R.D. in the Beartooth Christian Mountain Ranch, a value-based program put on by the Volunteers of America Northern Rockies. Law enforcement officers serve as camp counselors at the week-long camp designed to build self-esteem, leadership, decision-making skills and teamwork.
Ward brought FBI cyber sex crime agent Dan Vierthaler from Billings to speak with more than 100 parents and students about the very real and very frightening realities of internet predators.
And more than 100 kids turned out for the first annual bike rodeo at Columbus Elementary.
Coming off a tumultuous 2013, SMC was looking for some calm. As part of the reorganization of the company that had been foreshadowed a year earlier, SMC slimmed down 50 hourly positions (on a voluntary basis) and the Canadian Marathon PGM-Cu project has been slowed pending further evaluation. In May, SMC struck a sweet deal with the international chemicals company Johnson Matthey that secures the sale of all mined palladium and the majority of platinum for the next five years, translating into between $17 million and $22 million for SMC.
The East Boulder mine site in Sweet Grass County received one of five national BLM awards that specifically recognizes SMC’s funding of the Boulder River Watershed Association, which the mine committed to as part of the original Good Neighbor Agreement in 2000. And senior geologist Ennis Geraghty was named the recipient of the prestigious Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology award.
The company also is moving forward on the Stage 3 Hertzler Tailings Impoundment project as well as the Blitz Ridge project.
Park City’s Brianna Gray won her second consecutive state championship in the 200-meter dash with a time of 25.93.
The Columbus Cougar boys golf team captured its first state championship since 1997, led by Philip Holten and Jackson Klee. Holten’s rounds of 71-74 also crowned him as the individual champ. Klee’s rounds of 72-77 placed him third.
Miss Montana Teen
This year’s Miss Montana Teen is Reed Point’s own Miranda Youngren. The 17-year-old senior beat out 14 other contestants vying for the crown in a 2-day competition that included swim suit, evening gown and interview segments.
She will represent Montana at the national Miss Teen USA pageant to be held in 2015. Youngren plays varsity volleyball, basketball and runs track and is the captain of the Billings All-Stars competitive cheer team. She also serves on the student council.