SCN Staff
Thursday, December 27, 2018

SCN photo by Ardona Robbin

SAR photo by Crystal Arnold

SCN photo by Mikaela Koski

The following is a non-inclusive list of some of 2018’s biggest stories in Stillwater County.


2018 was largely about politics — nationally and locally. Focusing on the local level, the retirements of long-time public officials District Judge Blair Jones, Stillwater County Sheriff Cliff Brophy, Stillwater County Commissioner Maureen Davey and Stillwater County Superintendent of Schools Judy Martin meant voters chose new faces for critical leadership roles. Taking office in approximately a week will be new District Judge Matt Wald, Sheriff Chip Kem, Commissioner Tyrel Hamilton and superintendent John Smith.

Voters in Columbus also gave the green light on the elementary and high school levies, which will primarily allow the expansion of what has been an overcrowded elementary school.

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The snow started falling early and just kept piling up last winter, totaling more than 100 inches in Columbus alone. By the first week in February, Columbus had seen 55.9 inches of snow, Mystic Lake had 196 inches and Rapelje’s snowfall count was 69 inches. Storms swept through, leaving double-digit snowfall numbers at least three times. By April, Columbus had been buried by 8.37 feet of snow, Rapelje’s total was 11.5 feet and Mystic Lake’s total topped 23 feet. And the white stuff continued to fly throughout April.


At 11:30 p.m. on Sept. 25, 40 coal cars derailed on Montana Rail Link’s Mainline, toward the west end of Columbus, spilling an estimated 4,720 tons of coal. By 4:30 a.m. that next morning, MRL crews were on scene beginning the clean-up process. Within 48 hours, the mainline had been repaired and opened to train traffic once again. MRL spent the next handful of weeks making sure every bit of coal, steel and other debris at the crash site was removed, at an estimated cost of $3.5 million. An investigation into what caused the derailment is still underway by the Federal Railway Administration. What is known is that the train was not speeding.


Reed Point was the last known sighting of two different men that remain missing today. The first case involved Illinois resident Paul Batson, whose last known contact with family took place on April 29 when he called his girlfriend. The following day, after Batson failed to show up for a job inteview in Bozeman, his abandoned car was found in Reed Point.

Stillwater County Search and Rescue scoured more than 1,000 acres searching for the well-respected postal employee over the course of a month. No trace of him was ever found.

The second case was more painful, as it involved 20-year-old Columbus resident Brandon Fitch, who was reportedly seen going into the Yellowstone River in the early morning hours of June 16. Emergency crews were on scene quickly and conducted water and bank searches. Weather and water conditions hampered search efforts and as the days turned into weeks, then months, authorities issued a statement saying Fitch was presumed dead. Nothing has deterred his family, who have searched themselves and even brought in out-of-state groups to help.


In October, the rumors became official as the medical marijuana storefront Rosebud Remedies prepared to open for business in Columbus in the old Stageline Pizza building. Within a matter of a few months, M.A.C. opened doors across town. In between those openings was action by the Still-water County Commissioners to limit where shops would be allowed to set up in the county. Initially, commissioners said they were seeking to establish limitations and not prohibition as to where state-approved medical marijuana businesses could be located. For example, “within 500 feet of and on the same street as a building used exclusively as a church, synagogue, or other place of worship or as a school or postsecondary school other than a commercially operated school,” according to state law 50-46-312. A little later down the road, the county’s stance got tougher — prohibition of any storefronts and limiting the locations of any dispensaries.


In May, the county announced it had secured a $170,000 federal grant to help pay for the remediation of more than 14,000 square feet of “containments of concern” in the old hospital, which two of the Stillwater County Commissioners were leaning heavily towards using as county office space. The containments include asbestos, lead-based paint, mold and polychlorinated biphenyls.


In August, the Montana Attorney General’s Office refiled a negligent homicide charge against former Absarokee resident Michael Holtz accused of the 2013 killing of Forest Dana. The case had been dropped when local prosecutors decided they could not positively identify the suspect at trial. Assistant AG Chad Parker also refiled a felony charge of tampering with evidence and a new crime of failing to remain at the scene of an accident. Parker is prosecuting the case without Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde.

Authorities believe Holtz killed Dana when he ran over the man in an alley. DNA evidence found under Holtz’s car matched Dana, according to previous court testimony and documents. Several witnesses placed a car matching Holtz’s car near the scene at the time.



The Park City Panthers boys basketball team won the Class C Southern Division for the first time in 30 years with a 61-39 victory over the Bridger Scouts in the boys basketball divisional championship game. The win sent the Panthers to the state tournament for the first time in 12 years.

At state, Park City finished two points short of reaching the consolation game. The Panthers finished the season with a 21-5 overall record, notching wins against two teams ranked in the top-10 statewide.


The nine and 10-year-olds playing on the Columbus majors baseball team had big success this year. During the regular season, the Engineering West team went undefeated, 19-0. During the Tournament of Champions, the boys won the first two rounds, but fell to Laurel 11-8 in the 12th inning of the semifinal game.

That game had to take place over two days, as the teams were tied at the end of regulation (6 innings), forcing extra innings. By the time the sun went down, after the eighth inning, the two teams were still tied, meaning a game extension was necessary.

Five of those Engineering West players – Bridger Wilks, Colter Chamberlin, Ethan West, Hunter Zabransky, and Kolemen Gairrett – teamed up with players from the same Laurel team to create an unstoppable all stars team.

The Columbus-Laurel all stars team went 12-0 on the way to winning the state championship at the end of July. West pitched a shutout in the 10-0 state championship win over Billings Heights.