Violence mars progress in Lake County during 2013

2013-12-29T00:00:00Z 2013-12-29T09:43:03Z Violence mars progress in Lake County during 2013Times Staff
December 29, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Gary cops make changes after homicides reach alarming rate

GARY | When homicides in Gary hit a critical level this summer — 11 in July alone — Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson asked Gov. Mike Pence to send Indiana State Police troopers to help.

Gary logged 43 homicides in all of 2012. It met that total on Oct. 14 this year. Officials said many of the murders are retaliatory and carried out by small, start-up gang members.

Instead of sending troopers, Pence called for an audit of the Gary Police Department, which resulted in a report with recommendations for improvement. Police Chief Wade Ingram in December said he acted on the report by increasing the patrol division to 60 percent of the force.

Gary also teamed up with officers from Hammond, East Chicago and the Lake County Sheriff's Department to form the Region STOP team, a patrol effort in northern Lake County.

County commissioners adopt income tax in surprise vote

Employers began this fall deducting a 1.5 percent personal income tax from the paychecks of Lake County residents and workers.

Lake was the last county in the state to resist adopting a local income tax, because county officials said it unfairly exempted business income. However, their resistance was overcome by state laws slashing business-related tax revenues that led county government to shrink its payroll by 350 jobs and threatened future service cuts.

The County Council adopted the tax May 6. The Board of Commissioners was expected to veto it, but instead confirmed its adoption May 10.

Longtime Surveyor Van Til admits to public corruption

Seven months after vehement denials he had committed federal crimes against taxpayers, longtime Lake County Surveyor George Van Til pleaded guilty in Hammond federal court as 2013 came to a close.

On Dec. 5, flanked by family and political allies, Van Til pleaded guilty in Hammond federal court to six felony counts of wire fraud for using county employees and resources to further his political campaigns.

The guilty plea ended a 42-year political career, including 20 years a surveyor.

A sentencing date for Van Til had not yet been set Friday.

South Show Air Show may fly south to Newton County venue

South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority President Speros Batistatos announced in late November plans to move the South Shore Air Show to Fair Oaks Farms in rural Newton County.

Batistatos said Gary, its venue for a decade, no longer wanted the expense of hosting the show on its Lake Michigan shoreline, and federal air space restrictions involving Chicago's Midway International Airport made the Hammond and Whiting lakefronts impractical.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. complained the CVA shouldn't use Lake County casino and innkeeper taxes to promote an event outside the county. The Hammond and Lake County councils sided with the mayor, but the CVA board of directors is going forward with negotiations with Fair Oaks.

County, community leaders make peace over E-911 plan

Lake County officials this month approved an E-911 consolidation agreement needed to govern the financial arrangements of merging 17 police and fire dispatch centers into one countywide communications network in 2014.

The agreement was in jeopardy last summer, when St. John officials led a group of communities objecting to the county demanding cities and towns contribute tens of millions of income tax dollars to construct, equip and operate the new service.

County officials responded with concessions making county government responsible for building the electronics infrastructure and letting cities and towns keep their income tax money. They can use it to buy the mobile radios their officers and firefighters will use in the field.

Cities and towns still operating independent police and fire dispatch centers now must approve the same interlocal agreement. Mayors in Whiting, Hammond, Crown Point, Lake Station and other communities' leaders, including St. John, have signaled they will approve it.

Lake County officials signed Brian Hitchcock to a three-year contract that pays $112,000 per year to guide E-911 consolidation.

Griffith might finally get path to exit tax-heavy Cal Twp.

A new state law forcing Calumet Township to reduce its spending also gives Griffith the chance to join another Lake County township if Calumet Township tax rates don't drop by 2015.

After years of seeking to exit the township, Griffith leaders were ecstatic in May when Gov. Mike Pence signed the law requiring Calumet Township to reduce its township assistance tax rate used for poor relief programs from 22.64 times the state average to no more than 12 times the state average.

Township officials told lawmakers in December it will be "impossible" to cut the tax rate enough to avoid a potential 2014 state takeover of township finances.

Diocese's Bishop Dale Melczek announces plan for retirement

The Most Rev. Dale Melczek said last month he has sent his resignation letter to the Vatican in Rome. Melczek said church law requires bishops to submit their resignation on their 75th birthday. He said it may take Rome several months to decide on his replacement.

Melczek, who was ordained a priest in 1964 and consecrated bishop of Detroit in 1983, became the Gary Diocese's third bishop in 1996.

The last 22 years have seen his flock grow to 186,420 church members from 182,115, although a number of urban congregations have dispersed and the religious orders in the diocese declined.

Cedar Lake woman becomes county's first female assessor

Hank Adams died Oct. 6, three years after he became the first Republican to win a countywide office in 50 years in an upset election victory in 2010.

Lake County Republican precinct committee members selected Jolie Covaciu as his replacement Nov. 1. She became Lake County's first female county assessor.

The 46-year-old Covaciu, of Cedar Lake, narrowly outpolled veteran Deputy County Assessor Debra M. Johnson, 54, of Crown Point, who had been endorsed by County GOP Chairman Dan Dernulc and Jean Shepherd, Adams' wife.

Covaciu will complete the final year of his term and will face voters in 2014.

Lake County judges, lawyers do the courthouse shuffle

Superior Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. took over the Lake Juvenile Court this month after former Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura left in late March to become director of the Indiana Department of Child Services.

The fight to succeed Bonaventura was marred when Judge Nicholas Schiralli attempted to take control of the court staff of 169 and annual budget of $6 million on grounds of seniority within the Superior Court structure. Some assistant judicial officials objected that his participation in partisan judicial elections disqualified him from the nonpartisan court.

The Indiana Supreme Court blocked Schiralli, and Stefaniak qualified for the job. Stefaniak's vacancy was thrown open to all county attorneys; 11 applied and Highland attorney Samuel Cappas was chosen and sworn into office last week as Criminal Courtroom 4 judge.

Hit-and-run driver convicted of striking correctional officers

A Lake County jury in November found Jason Cozmanoff, 44, of Lakes of the Four Seasons, guilty on all 13 counts in a hit-and-run that killed a county correctional officer and injured three others.

Pronounced dead at the scene was correctional officer Britney Meux, 25. Meux and three fellow officers were jogging along 93rd Avenue near Main Street in Crown Point the night of March 6, 2012, when they were struck by Cozmanoff's GMC Yukon.

Cozmanoff faces sentencing in February on multiple charges that include reckless homicide, criminal recklessness and various counts related to failing to stop after a crash. He also faces a pending civil lawsuit in connection to the fatal crash.

Riley Choate accepts 80-year sentence in death of his son

CALUMET TOWNSHIP | Riley Choate, 40, was sentenced in January to 80 years in prison in a plea deal in which he admitted to abusing his son, Christian Choate, 13.

The abuse case captured national attention after police were tipped in May 2011 to the boy's beaten, malnourished body having been buried in a Black Oak mobile home park.

Choate's sentencing hearing detailed the boy's repeated beatings, starvation and imprisonment in a dog cage.

Choate was sentenced after pleading guilty to multiple charges, including neglect of a dependent, moving a body from a death scene and depriving his daughter of an education.

Stepmom handed 35 years for role in Christian Choate death

CALUMET TOWNSHIP | Kimberly Kubina, 47, the stepmother of a slain teenager, in February was sentenced to 35 years in prison after pleading guilty to neglect of a dependent in the boy's long-term abuse.

The emaciated body of Christian Choate, 13, was recovered from a shallow grave in a Black Oak mobile home park in May 2011, two years after his disappearance.

At sentencing, Kubina admitted to having "committed a great sin."

Calumet Twp. man convicted in death of 94-year-old mom

CALUMET TOWNSHIP | George Knezevic, 62, of Calumet Township, was acquitted in October of murdering his elderly mother but found guilty on other charges that netted him a sentence of 9.5 years.

Witnesses told jurors Knezevic choked his 94-year-old mother outside their home before spraying her with a garden hose and pulling her into the house by her hair. Police found the woman injured in the trash-filled house. She later died. Knezevic also pointed a pistol at the head of a witness.

Jurors convicted Knezevic of two counts of neglect of a dependent and a single count of pointing a firearm.

Police: Teacher took kids to strip club, gave them alcohol

CEDAR LAKE | A Hanover Central High School teacher was fired after allegations surfaced that he took students to a strip club and treated them to alcoholic beverages at his Crown Point home.

The teacher, Travis Lechien, 32, was charged with three counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. All of the charges are Class A misdemeanors, which are punishable by up to one year in prison.

Lechien has pleaded not guilty. His case has been continued to Jan. 21 before Judge Julie Cantrell.

Volunteer fire force becomes department in Cedar Lake

CEDAR LAKE | The town took the historic step of merging with the 75-year-old Cedar Lake Volunteer Fire Department in 2013.

In December, the Town Council approved a merger agreement with the department. Todd Wilkening will stay on in his position as fire chief. The decision to make what has been a volunteer organization into a town department was announced in September. The change was necessary to ensure public safety and the continuation of excellent residential services as the town continues to grow, Town Council President Randy Niemeyer said.

Cedar Lake dismisses parks director, eliminates position

CEDAR LAKE | The town’s Parks and Recreation Department continued to be a source of news in 2013. Longtime Parks Director Mary Joan Dickson was let go in the summer, a move which has left hard feelings among some members of the public. The town has since eliminated the parks director position and created a new, part-time position called parks and recreation coordinator.

Softball play starts after latest round of work at sportsplex

CROWN POINT | Softball play kicked off in June on three new fields constructed in the city-owned sports complex. The fields were part of a second phase of work that started in spring 2012 on the northwest side of the park.

A first round of improvements in 2011 added two artificial turf playing fields for youth football, soccer and lacrosse.

New concession and restroom buildings and upgraded parking, lighting and road access were included in the nearly $7.5 million cost of the first two phases.

Crown Point's 'grand old lady' celebrates 135th anniversary

CROWN POINT | The Old Lake County Courthouse in September celebrated its 135th birthday. The community was invited to the party, where hometown astronaut Jerry Ross was among special guests.

Built in 1878 with additions completed in 1928, the red brick structure in the downtown square survived a 1970s attempt to have it razed for a parking lot.

C.P. adds Van Drunen Farms, Culver's, senior living facility

CROWN POINT | Several major development projects were completed in Crown Point in 2013.

The $4.5 million Bickford Senior Living facility opened in October at Broadway and 107th Avenue, bringing an estimated 42 jobs.

The Family Express chain opened its second new location in Crown Point this year, this one in November at 998 S. Court St. A $2.1 million Family Express station opened in August at 802 E. North St.

Food grower and processor Van Drunen Farms in January announced plans to expand from its Momence, Ill., base into the vacated former Dawn Food Products facility, 1300 E. Summit St. Van Drunen Farms purchased the 125,000-square-foot facility for an unnamed price.

A Culver's restaurant under construction at Broadway and Summit Street is expected to open in early 2014.

New home construction in C.P. continues to rebound

CROWN POINT | The city expected to close out the year with a continued strong showing in new home construction. A total 173 building permits for single-family homes had been issued through mid-December.

Construction costs of the homes permitted totaled $44,986,909.

Police Department ranks swell to most in Crown Point history

CROWN POINT | Police Department ranks swelled to 44 in August with the addition of two officers.

Travis Thomas and Jonathan Halloran, both military veterans, were assigned to the patrol division. Jason Burkholder was added in November to bring the force to its highest number ever: 45.

Cop stays on force, apologizes for violating police policies

CROWN POINT | Crown Point police Sgt. James Poling was handed a 30-day unpaid suspension but remained on the police force in a settlement reached in March.

Poling in February had been suspended with pay over his handling of a May 2012 police pursuit. As part of the March settlement, Poling apologized for his actions related to the chase.

Poling had filed a federal lawsuit in February alleging city officials had attempted to terminate him in retaliation for his signing a letter objecting to the 2012 appointment of Randall Palmateer to the Board of Public Works and Safety.

Dyer lands key intersection in its redevelopment efforts

DYER | The town finally acquired property considered vital to Dyer’s redevelopment, the parcel at the northeast corner at Hart Street and U.S. 30.

Vacant for 18 years, the parcel was once owned by multiple owners, which hampered its development, town officials said. The corner is considered vital to the town’s redevelopment because it is the first intersection motorists encounter after crossing the town line.

Town officials said developers are already showing interest in building on that corner.

Pay hike for Dyer employees controversial in some corners

DYER | After six years, the Town Council approved salary increases for civilian employees and fire and police personnel, which will begin in 2014. The move was controversial, because some officials objected to fire and police officers getting more money. Civilian employees are getting a 3 percent raise, while fire and police personnel will get 6 percent.

Police make presence known after formation of STOP team

EAST CHICAGO | Police presence was expanded in the city this year with the formation of a program Police Chief Mark Becker named the STOP Team.

The City Council in March approved the transfer of appropriations in the amount of $150,000 to pay for overtime to create the team that Becker said would allow more traffic stops and the formation of additional Neighborhood Watch groups.

Crime statistics submitted to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program showed an 18 percent drop in violent crime in the city for the first six months of the year, compared with the same time frame last year. The data seemed to show the STOP team and other policing efforts were taking effect.

E.C. avoids using casino cash to balance its 2014 budget

EAST CHICAGO | In October, the City Council approved a 2014 general fund budget of about $24.4 million, a decrease of approximately $1.5 million from the previous year.

East Chicago City Controller Kim Anderson said it marked the first time in many years that gaming subsidies would not have to be used to balance funds.

Former Gary Mayor Rudy Clay passes from political scene

GARY | Former Gary Mayor Rudy Clay died from cancer June 4 at age 77.

He was remembered as a formidable politician who won every crucial election he participated in and served not only as Gary mayor but also as a state senator, a county recorder, a councilman and a county commissioner during four decades in public life.

With his signature retro 1970s mutton chops, wide lapels, broad ties and monogrammed French cuffs, he had to deal as mayor with collapsing property tax revenues, but remained upbeat about the future of the Steel City.

Gary man sentenced to death in fatal shooting of his family

GARY | Kevin Isom, 47, was given three death sentences in March for the slaying of his wife and two stepchildren in their home in Gary's Miller area.

Isom was convicted of shooting his wife, Cassandra Isom, 40, and stepchildren Michael Moore, 16, and Ci'Andria Cole, 13, about six years ago after Cassandra Isom threatened to leave him.

At the urging of the state, Stefaniak sentenced Isom to three consecutive death sentences to increase the chances he will die in prison.

He is currently set for execution Feb. 5.

Gary teen sentenced in fatal shooting of abusive father

GARY | Thomas Mallory Jr., 18, in October was given a four-year suspended sentence after pleading guilty to reckless homicide in the killing of his father, Thomas Mallory Sr., 39, then of Gary.

The senior Mallory was asleep in his bed when his son shot him the morning of Dec. 19, 2012, while the boy's mother was out of the house. The shooting ended decades of domestic abuse by the elder Mallory.

Authorities said the shooting did not meet the legal standards for a self-defense argument, but all indications were the boy was acting in defense of his mother after the latest night of abuse.

2 Gary City Council members admit to federal tax crimes

GARY | The second Gary City Council member in as many years was accused by federal prosecutors in 2013 of violating federal tax laws.

In December, Gary City Councilman Ronier Scott, 42, was charged in Hammond federal court with two misdemeanor counts of willfully failing to file income tax returns for 2008 and 2009. Scott signed a plea agreement filed in conjunction with the charges, admitting he chose not to file federal returns for the income.

As part of Scott's plea agreement, he will cooperate with Internal Revenue Service officials in determining and paying all back taxes, penalties and interest he owes the federal government, court documents state.

Scott's charges followed a third delay in the sentencing of a former Gary city councilwoman in a separate tax evasion case.

Former Councilwoman Marilyn Krusas is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 8, according to court records.

Krusas was charged in October 2012 and pleaded guilty in April 2013 to felony tax evasion. The felony conviction made her ineligible to retain her public office; Scott's misdemeanor admissions carry no such prohibition.

Gary working to tears down structures, build up cityscape

GARY | Efforts to tear down, build up and clean up began changing the Steel City’s landscape during 2013.

Plans to raze the former Sheraton Hotel that has sat empty for decades directly south of City Hall made headlines as the necessary studies and forms worked their way through various governmental pipelines. Asbestos in the 14-story, 300-room hotel that opened in 1968 continued to be a concern.

Demolition could take place in the spring of 2014. Afterward, the site would be converted to a green-space project, such as a park, Mayor Karen-Freeman Wilson said.

Creating new homes for Gary residents gains momentum

GARY | In April, ground was broken for Comfort Villas, an affordable housing project to be built on vacant lots in the 2100 block of Jefferson Street in the city’s Midtown neighborhood. The 32 units built in two phases provide housing for low-income families.

The Gardens on Carolina welcomed residents in September. The new 39-unit facility features housing for low-income seniors.

Gary’s updated Dollar Home Program, unveiled in June, awarded its first five homes in a lottery held Dec. 13 at Gary City Hall. Twelve homes that are part of the program are located in the University Park area near Indiana University Northwest.

Each of the homes will sell for $1, with closings expected in February. New homeowners must bring the property up to city code within six months, pay taxes and insure it. Participants had to be Gary residents who weren't already homeowners. They must have $1,000 in savings, meet 80 percent of area median income standards and agree to live in the home.

New Boys & Girls Club opens in former Tolleston school

GARY | Investing in Gary’s future also included participating in the creation of the new John Will Anderson Boys & Girls Club at the former Tolleston Middle/High School. A two-day celebration in November marked the grand opening of the club at 2700 W. 19th Ave.

Griffith businesswoman killed; former tenant to face trial

GRIFFITH | Mary Austgen, 76, of St. John, was found shot to death in her car in a parking garage at Majestic Star Casino in late March, the day after her family reported her missing from The Austgen Cos., 801 E. Main St. in Griffith.

Austen owned Austgen Properties, a subsidiary of family-owned The Austen Cos., which is housed at the same location.

Surveillance video showed Austgen was kidnapped at gunpoint from her business.

Nearly a month later, Ralph Martinez, 57, of Alsip, Ill., was arrested and charged with murder, robbery and criminal confinement in connection with the Austgen case after his ex-wife contacted authorities after seeing surveillance photos and recognizing rings in her home that had been taken from Austgen.

Martinez is a former tenant of one of Austgen's properties. Cellphone records showed he was at Austen's business and Majestic Star Casino at the time of the crimes.

A trial is set for February.

Man sentenced to life in prison for brutal slaying of teacher

GRIFFITH | Robert Lewis, 40, of Gary, in October was found guilty of having beaten and sexually assaulted 39-year-old Jennifer Kocsis, a former teacher from Griffith.

Kocsis had agreed to give Lewis a ride home to Gary from a Griffith bar-restaurant at closing time April 2, 2011. Her battered, partially clad body was found on vacant school property not far from Lewis' home.

Because of the life-without-parole option, jurors could have sentenced Lewis but returned the decision to the judge when they couldn't reach a unanimous decision.

Mance named new police chief after Griffith demotes Kottka

GRIFFITH | The town got a new police chief in February when 14-year Griffith police veteran Greg Mance exchanged his detective's badge for the chief's chair.

He replaced Matt Moore, who had agreed to serve as interim chief after the council demoted former Police Chief Ron Kottka in November 2012.

Kottka filed a lawsuit against Town Council Vice President Rick Ryfa, R-3rd, and each individual member of the Griffith Safety Board alleging Kottka was defamed when he was demoted and that his 14th Amendment rights also had been violated.

The lawsuit was dismissed in November by U.S. District Judge Theresa Springmann, who said Kottka failed to make a plausible claim that his due process rights were violated when he was denied a hearing prior to his demotion.

Megachurch pastor sentenced for sex with teen parishioner

HAMMOND | The disgraced former head pastor of a Hammond megachurch was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison in 2013 after admitting to sexual relations with an underage parishioner.

Jack Schaap pleaded guilty to transporting the teenage girl across state lines for sexual encounters at the time he was serving as the First Baptist Church of Hammond's head pastor.

Schaap admitted in federal court his sexual encounters with the girl began when she was 16 — in June 2012 — and continued two more times through July, when she was 17. At the time of the encounters, the victim was both a church member whom Schaap was counseling and a student of the Hammond Baptist Schools, of which Schaap was the superintendent, he told the court.

Details of Schaap's admitted crimes came to light in 2012 after he was fired from the pulpit of the Hammond church.

Former Hammond councilman sentenced in bribery case

HAMMOND | A guilty plea to federal corruption charges ushered a longtime Hammond councilman out of public office in 2013.

Former Councilman Al Salinas was sentenced in August to 42 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to taking $10,500 in kickbacks for steering city work to a local contractor. He also pleaded guilty to failing to file several years of tax returns.

The conviction in Hammond federal court ended his reign of representing the city's 2nd District, which began in 1995.

The contractor in question, David Johnson, owner of Dave's Tree Service, also pleaded guilty to bribing Salinas in exchange for work funded through a discretionary casino revenue account Salinas controlled.

Hammond's new nine-span called a bridge to development

HAMMOND | In terms of sheer size, cost and impact to north-south traffic through Lake County, the opening of the new nine-span bridge on Indianapolis Boulevard in December topped Hammond headlines during 2013.

The nine sections of rusty steel truss spans that made up the former 1930s-era bridge were one of Hammond's most recognizable landmarks.

Having the new bridge in place is welcome news to the developers of a $25 million retail development in North Hammond, which won city approval in 2013. Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said the development will transform and clean up the corridor along Indianapolis and to the Illinois state line.

Hammond approves incentives for redevelopment of 16 acres

HAMMOND | The Hammond City Council gave its final approval in June to offering incentives for a project proposed by Marina District Development LLC, which is a partnership between Oakridge Properties of Algonquin, Ill., and the Collins family, of Hobart.

The council’s approval of bond sales opens up $3.5 million in incentives from the city for Marina District Development. The bonds will be paid off through tax increment financing.

Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said the incentive package will spur work from the Indiana-Illinois state line to the five-points intersection at Calumet Avenue and 114th Street. The 16-acre development adjacent to the Walmart site will include two retail strip malls, at least two sit-down restaurants and a bank planned for northwest of the Horseshoe Casino entrance ramp.

A possible second phase of the project could focus on Indianapolis Boulevard from the Horseshoe ramp down to five points and could include a hotel. However, no details of this second phase have been finalized.

Hammond officials approve merger of 4 city departments

HAMMOND | In move to deliver new fiscal efficiencies, the city approved the consolidation of four departments — streets, sanitation, parks and recycling — into one larger one. Employees may now perform work outside their normal job function, allowing supervisors to direct manpower where it’s need at any given time.

Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said this consolidation will allow the city to eliminate many of the current restrictions of having employees perform crossover department work. The consolidation also will save an anticipated $1 million and help increase the city’s recycling efforts.

Highland man gets 55 years in shooting death of girlfriend

HIGHLAND | Douglas Smith, 27, in March was sentenced to 55 years for shooting his live-in girlfriend after the couple returned home from a Highland bar.

Lake Criminal Court Judge Salvador Vasquez chided Smith not only for possessing a firearm and having been intoxicated, but also for fleeing the state and setting up his mother to find the body.

Testimony indicated Smith and the victim, 28-year-old Jacqueline Williams, had a troubled, volatile relationship before Smith shot her Jan. 14, 2012.

Highland officials planning for $10.5 million police station

HIGHLAND | The Town Council announced construction of a new $10.2 million police station at the northeast corner of Ridge Road and Cottage Grove, immediately west of Town Hall.

Design of the 25,190-square-foot building is underway, and contractor bids will be opened May 5. Construction is expected to begin May 13 and be completed by July 15, 2015

Extended-stay motel complex eyed for long-vacant property

HIGHLAND | After sitting vacant for 10 years, the Terry Shaver Pontiac building was sold and razed to make way for the town's first motel.

The six-building complex, called Prairie Square, will host extended-stay visitors. Developer Eric Gastevich said it will be an upscale, gated facility to host higher income professionals on temporary job assignments.

Construction is expected to finish in late summer or fall 2014.

Boyfriend given 40 years for role in death of Jada Justice

Timothy Tkachik, 27, of Hobart, in July was stunned to receive a 40-year sentence in the wake of his testifying against the mother of slain Jada Justice.

Tkachik pleaded guilty in 2010 to two counts of neglect of a dependent in the beating of the 2-year-old daughter of Melissa Swiontek, of Portage, who later also was charged with neglect in the case.

Tkachik admitted joining girlfriend Engelica Castillo in beating the child, then disposing of her body in a LaPorte County swamp.

Tkachik also had given key testimony against Castillo, whose life-without-parole sentence for murder was later reduced to 65 years.

Judge tosses charges against mother of slain Portage girl

In a directed verdict in June, Lake Criminal Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. cleared the mother of slain Portage toddler Jada Justice.

Melissa Swiontek, 31, was charged with neglect after her cousin, Engelica Castillo, and Castillo's boyfriend, Timothy Tkachik, then of Hobart, were convicted in the child's death.

Castillo, then 18, and Tkachik, then 23, beat the 2-year-old to death in June 2009, later burning and encasing the girl's body in concrete and throwing it in a LaPorte County swamp.

Stefaniak determined Swiontek did not have knowledge of the couple's heroin use, which played a role in the child's death.

Hobart teenager charged with city's only homicide in 2013

HOBART | A Hobart teen was charged in connection with the stabbing death of a man during a fight outside a gas station. The slaying in late October marked the city's only homicide of the year, police said.

Marco Antonio Gonzalez, 17, was charged in Lake Criminal Court with the murder of Jesus Ibarra, 19, of East Chicago.

Gonzalez was charged as an adult through Lake County, Hobart police Sgt. Jeremy Ogden said.

Human remains found in area north of strip mall on U.S. 30

HOBART | An identification card recovered by police may have belonged to the individual whose remains were found Sept. 20 in a wooded area behind a strip mall.

The card, which listed the name of a man, was among the items recovered by police from the scene just north of the Crossing at Hobart off U.S. 30, Detective David Evans said.

The Crossing at Hobart is in the 2100 block of East 79th Avenue, just north of Westfield Southlake Mall.

Other items found at the scene suggest the person was living in the wooded area, where homeless people are known to congregate, Hobart police Cmdr. Jeremy Ogden said.

Valpo woman dies after her car careens into Lake George

HOBART | An 83-year-old Valparaiso woman died in early September after being rescued from her car, which had careened into Lake George, police said.

Shirley J. Gronlund was rescued from her submerged vehicle and taken to St. Mary Medical Center, where she later died. Gronlund's family told police there may have been a medical problem that led to the accident.

Former St. Sava property sold for possible detention center

HOBART | The former St. Sava property in Hobart was sold to a company that builds and operates correctional and detention facilities around the world.

A total of 40 acres of land owned by Bear Country Park was sold Nov. 4, Hobart resident Larry Brown said. Brown is a managing member and one of five partners comprising Bear Country Park.

The sale of the property, east of Interstate 65 near Robinson Lake, was confirmed by Aaron McDermott, whose company Latitude Commercial Realty Inc. has had the property listing at 4101 W. 49th Ave. for the last 18 months.

Confirmation of the sale of the property to GEO Group Inc., based in Boca Raton, Fla., sparked controversy at a City Council meeting, where local and national protesters were in attendance.

Federal agents investigating at Lake Station City Hall

LAKE STATION | Federal agents executed a search warrant on Nov. 15 at Lake Station City Hall.

The federal agents, including three from the Internal Revenue Service and one the Federal Bureau of Investigations, said they could not discuss what they were seeking, why or how long they would be in the city.

No action had been taken by federal officials at the end of December.

Clerk-Treasurer Brenda Samuels said the city has been part of an investigation by federal agents since June.

Although agents have not discussed the purpose of the investigation, Samuels believes from their timing and initial information sought, the trigger was $15,800 in city bond collections that turned up missing late last year.

Lake Station officials kick off water improvement project

LAKE STATION | A groundbreaking ceremony was held in late March to mark the start of the first phase of the city's water improvement project, Mayor Keith Soderquist said.

Construction on the first phase will be handled by Thieneman Construction Inc., of Westfield. The Board of Works last year awarded a $7.7 million contract to Thieneman, the lowest of four bids.

Phase one improvements will include the new water supply wells, a new groundwater treatment plant and water main improvements, Soderquist said.

Lowell man named a suspect in homicide of his parents

LOWELL | Thomas J. Snow, 34, of Lowell, is a suspect in the deaths of his parents, 66-year-old Joyce Snow and 68-year-old Clifford Snow. Their decomposed bodies were found Oct. 18 in their home near the intersection of 197th and Calumet Avenue, west of Lowell.

They died of blunt force trauma and strangulation. Police tracked Snow, who had been living at the house, to Minnesota through cellphone records and his parents' credit card activity. Minnesota police stopped him near Hawley, Minn., after a brief chase.

He was extradited to Indiana in early December and is being held in Newton County on an armed robbery charge. The Lake County sheriff said his department is preparing homicide charges to be filed in the near future.

Ivy Tech debt scuttles plans for Tri-Creek Learning Center

LOWELL | When Ivy Tech announced a $68 million deficit in June, plans more than a year in the making for the Tri-Creek Learning Center on the site of the former Lowell Middle School on Oakley Avenue were halted.

The college as primary tenant would have offset the expected $480,000 annual cost to operate the center housing college classrooms, professional development space for Tri-Creek faculty and day care space for practical use and early childhood development coursework.

M'ville boy dies after being shot through window of home

MERRILLVILLE | Depree Mims, 14, was shot through a window of his Merrillville home March 27 while getting a blanket for the other children in the home. He died two days later.

Kevin Brown, 18, and Matthew Knight, 16, both of Merrillville, and brothers Anthony Addison, 23, and Joshua Addison, 22, of Gary, were charged in March with murder and criminal gang activity in connection with the shooting.

Charges against Joshua Addison were later dismissed.

Knight entered into a plea agreement, admitting to reckless homicide and the enhancement of using a firearm. Knight received an 11-year sentence.

Brown also entered into a plea agreement, admitting to assisting a criminal. He received an 18-month sentence.

Anthony Addison has a hearing scheduled for Jan. 7, court documents show.

M'ville residents among those killed in fiery crash on I-65

MERRILLVILLE | Seven people were killed Aug. 15 in a fiery crash on northbound Interstate 65 in Jasper County.

All seven were in a 2005 Jeep Cherokee, which was crushed between two semitrucks.

Killed were Merrillville residents Amando Mangual, 49, Lindsey Williams, 27, Yazmin Goldman, 5, and Arielle Goldman, 3, and Atlanta residents Yvette Williams, 35, Jamin Osbourne, 5, and Jasmin Osborne, 7.

Man convicted of killing clerk at M'ville convenient store

MERRILLVILLE | A jury in November convicted a 22-year-old man in the murder of a Merrillville store clerk.

Jeremy Blue, of Merrillville, faces a possible sentence of 85 years when sentenced Jan. 16.

He was charged with murder, murder in the perpetration of a robbery and robbery days after Lucky Mart Foods clerk Judi Simpson-Beaver, 48, was shot to death March 4, 2012, during an armed robbery at the Merrillville convenience store.

Carbon monoxide kills family of four renting M'ville house

MERRILLVILLE | A family of four had died from carbon monoxide poisoning in October in the house they were renting at 825 W. 70th Ave.

The bodies of Micheal Nichols, 41, Kennetha Purnell, 38, Matthew Nichols, 13, and Morgan Nichols, 11, were discovered inside the house after family members visited the residence because they hadn't heard from their loved ones for several days.

Police said it appears the source of the carbon monoxide was a generator that officials found in the home's garage.

Police said the rental house did not yet have power, and the family had purchased a generator after moving into the home.

Economic development efforts continue throughout Munster

MUNSTER | Economic development remained a major focus during 2013 as a wide range of businesses opened their doors at sites such as the Munster Shops and the Lake Business Center.

Construction of the new Hilton Homewood Suites Extended Stay Hotel signaled the start of major development in the northwest section of the Lake Business Center.

Illinois-based companies also crossed the state line, attracted by major manufacturing and corporate space and tax incentives offered by Munster. Land O’Frost, Carl Buddig & Co. and Tec-Air were among those choosing to relocate all or part of their companies to the town.

New Chicago begins water system improvement project

NEW CHICAGO | New Chicago in late February kicked off its water system improvement project with a groundbreaking ceremony.

The first phase of the project represents a $6 million effort to upgrade the town's aged water distribution system, which dates back to 1954, project engineer Jeffrey R. Ban said.

Shops on Main construction finally begins in Schererville

SCHERERVILLE | Construction of the Shops on Main development started in May.

Gordmans, Ross Dress for Less, HomeGoods and DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse were the first stores announced for the center at the southeast corner of Main Street and U.S. 41.

In August, several Schererville panels approved amendments to a financing agreement for the Shops on Main project to help bring Whole Foods to that development.

The first stores in Shops on Main are expected to open in early 2014.

Construction of Whole Foods could be completed by late next year or in 2015.

Lightning sparks fire atop S'ville condominium building

SCHERERVILLE | A fire started by lightning May 30 displaced residents and damaged parts of a Schererville condominium building.

The fire caused the building's water pipes to burst. The third floor of the building in the Lejardin Condominiums complex was destroyed, the second floor was partially damaged and the first floor had smoke and water damage.

The building at West Joliet and Homan Drive contained 24 units, and a total of 31 residents were displaced.

Construction of Lake Central's new academic wing wraps up

ST. JOHN | The fast-tracked construction of Lake Central High School’s new academic wing, vocational area and swimming pool was completed with students slated to begin classes on Jan. 7, 2014. Good weather and “a fantastic team” made that possible, said Bill Ledyard, director of facilities for the Lake Central School Corp.

Whiting YMCA plans to lease city's community center

WHITING | A public forum hosted by Mayor Joseph Stahura in August was heavily attended by residents who were told of a plan to lease the Whiting Community Center to the YMCA to save the city about $500,000 annually.

The city will proceed with that plan. Closure of the building is scheduled for New Year's Day to allow for renovations expected to take six or seven months for completion.

National Mascot Hall of Fame catches Whiting officials' eye

WHITING | The city received much attention after representatives from the National Mascot Hall of Fame paid a visit in September to explore the possibility of giving its online museum a permanent home in Whiting.

The city continues to entertain that possibility, along with plans Mayor Joseph Stahura unveiled to perhaps also create a home for the Chicago Baseball Museum and a museum that showcases the history of the Standard Oil Co.

Winfield imposes first curfew, organizes Crime Watch group

WINFIELD | The town took major steps in 2013 to protect its residents against crime and promote economic development.

In July, the Town Council unanimously approved the first curfew ordinance in the community’s 20-year history. Council members said the ordinance is essential because of an uptick in vandalism and theft by juveniles plaguing neighborhoods throughout Winfield and nearby Lakes of the Four Seasons.

The curfew dovetails with the town’s new Crime Watch program that’s being developed in conjunction with the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. A free text alert program also is being set up to provide residents with information about suspicious activities and other municipal concerns such as road closings.

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