Year end stories 2012 - North Lake County

2012-12-29T19:45:00Z 2012-12-30T00:54:03Z Year end stories 2012 - North Lake County

Valpo man, 66, convicted in death of road service worker

A Valparaiso man was sentenced to 14 years in prison in the death of a road service worker killed while fixing a tire on Interstate 65.

A Lake County jury in September deliberated for about two hours before convicting Jeffery Cleary, 66, on two felony and three misdemeanor drunken driving charges in the 2010 death of Philip Amsden, 63. Cleary also was found liable on two traffic infractions.

Amsden, an employee of Boss Truck Stop in Gary, was fixing a flat tire on a semitrailer parked on the shoulder of I-65 south of Ridge Road when Cleary's SUV struck Amsden's pickup, crushing Amsden between his vehicle and the semitrailer.

The jury's verdict came on the ninth day of a retrial. An earlier jury had deadlocked 11-1 on the three most serious of seven counts, finding him guilty or liable on the remaining offenses.

61 percent of state's schools earn A or B grades in 2012

Schools in Northwest Indiana were in line with those in the rest of the state as more than 61 percent of Indiana's schools received A or B grades for the 2011-12 year, though some also received failing grades.

Beginning with the 2010-11 academic year, the Indiana State Board of Education changed the labels for school categories based on student performance from the terms Exemplary, Commendable, Academic Progress, Academic Watch and Academic Probation to easy-to-understand letter grades — A, B, C, D and F.

Munster spurns referendum; Union Twp. authorizes one

The School Town of Munster decided against seeking a referendum in November asking taxpayers for more money.

School Board President Paula Nellans said state cuts made to public education in the last three years total nearly $1 billion, yet the state surplus has risen to more than $2 billion. The School Town of Munster per-pupil funding is the 10th lowest in the state, ranking 348th out of 357 public, charter and virtual schools.

Most recently, the Union Township School Board authorized a referendum, and one is being discussed in the Metropolitan School District of Boone Township.

Dad, stepmother admit roles in death of Christian Choate

The horrific life and death of Christian Choate captured national attention, culminating in the boy's father and stepmother admitting to the abuse and facing lengthy prison terms.

Riley Choate and his then-wife, Kimberly Kubina, were charged in 2011 with murder and multiple other felonies after the boy's body was found in a shallow grave in Gary.

Choate, 40, pleaded guilty in December to two counts of felony neglect of a dependent and a single count of felony removal of a body from a death scene or altering a death scene. He also pleaded guilty to being an habitual offender.

Choate admitted to beating and punishing his son, including keeping the boy in a dog cage and allowing him to become badly malnourished. He faces an agreed 80-year prison term when sentenced Jan. 11.

Kubina, 47, pleaded guilty to felony neglect in May for her role in the abuse. She faces 25 to 35 years in prison when sentenced Feb. 19.

Disgraced leader of Baptist church admits sex with girl

Disgraced former Hammond minister Jack Schaap, who once headed one of the largest congregations in the country, admitted to federal charges of having sex with a 16-year-old female parishioner.

Church leaders fired Schaap, 54, from his post at the First Baptist Church of Hammond in July 2012 after allegations surfaced that he arranged transport of the girl on multiple occasions for sexual encounters in Illinois and Michigan. Schaap admitted in Hammond federal court that 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.

Schaap told a federal judge that what he did "was a sin. It was wrong." But Schaap also claimed he did not realize it was illegal at the time he was carrying out the acts.

Schaap faces a sentence of 10 years or more in prison at his scheduled Jan. 15 sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court, Hammond.

Law enforcement targeting region gangs in indictments

Local, state and federal law enforcement officials targeted region gang activity, which resulted in a series of indictments.

More than 20 alleged members and associates of the Latin Kings gang were federally indicted amid accusations they participated in a racketeering conspiracy that resulted in 19 alleged murders in three states and distributed millions of dollars of drugs throughout Northwest Indiana and the Chicago area. The Gang Response Investigative Team and Firearms Interdiction Regional Enforcement handled that investigation with some Chicago-based agencies.

Alleged members of the East Chicago-based Imperial Gangsters also were federally indicted. The defendants are accused of crimes including murder, attempted murder and drug trafficking.

The indictments came down in 2011 and 2012, and many still are pending.

East Chicago School Board transfers Field School for $1

The East Chicago School Board approved the transfer of school property for $1 each to the city of East Chicago.

The board approved transferring the former Field Elementary School and three recreational centers, including the Roxanna Center, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center and the Marktown Center to the city.

The city wants to convert Field Elementary into a university campus. Several years ago, the school system invested more than $1 million in the elementary school building.

New Gary mayor is state's first black woman city leader 

Karen Freeman-Wilson became the first black female mayor in Indiana when she took office in Gary at the beginning of the year.

Freeman-Wilson, a Harvard-educated attorney and Gary native, replaced outgoing Mayor Rudy Clay. This makes her Gary's first female mayor as well as the first black female mayor in Indiana. Freeman-Wilson had run for mayor unsuccessfully in 2003 and 2007.

She took the helm of a city plagued by high crime, high unemployment, high poverty, dropping population, abandoned homes and dwindling tax revenues. Budgetary woes mean the city cannot provide many of the services residents need.

Freeman-Wilson started or helped promote many programs turning to volunteers and organizations to help maintain the blighted town, as well as looking for grant money from other sources.

Gary school superintendent has big revitalization plans

Gary Community School Corp. Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt is developing partnerships with local universities and businesses, and sees the school corporation opening up a laboratory school, a charter school and an Apple technical school.

Pruitt, whose district's enrollment dwindles each year and has faced massive cuts at the state level, said she wants to give students as many choices as possible.

Purdue Calumet officials: Dual credit courses are expensive

Purdue University Calumet plans to limit enrollment in dual-credit programs because it's so expensive for the university.

Dual credit allows a high school junior or senior to enroll in a college course and simultaneously earn college and high school credit for the same course.

When the dual-credit tuition rates were set up, it was assumed the Indiana Commission for Higher Education would provide a $50 per-credit-hour reimbursement to colleges and universities that participated, but that incentive never materialized, Purdue Calumet Chancellor Thomas Keon said.

Test cheating inquiry flagged Gary and 82 other districts

Indiana Department of Education officials objected to an article in the Sept. 30 Atlanta Journal-Constitution saying it ignored possible rampant cheating in Gary, and 82 other school districts, on the 2010 ISTEP-Plus test.

Reporter Alan Judd said he and fellow reporter Michael Pell had information from sources they could not reveal regarding the tests.

The article said the state education department "flagged Gary and 82 others for excessive erasures but didn't announce the findings in public and didn't notify parents of students in suspect schools."

Lake officials borrow $15M to balance 2013 budget

Lake County officials grudgingly voted to borrow $15 million to balance county government's 2013 budget.

The Lake County Council passed the measure by a bare 4-3 majority and the Board of Commissioners only gave its approval after vigorous debate about the wisdom of spending more money than property tax revenues permit.

The county has cut 300 jobs from its payroll and reduced spending by $30 million in recent years in reaction to declining government revenues because of state-mandated property limits and dropping real estate values.

The county also is being confronted by federal government demands to fund multimillion-dollar improvements to the Lake County Jail and medical services and by rising health insurance costs.

Lake discussed borrowing the money from cash-rich Porter County, but Porter County officials said they couldn't encourage Lake's deficit spending practices.

Jury is finally seated in Lake County death penalty case

A second round of jury selection in Lake County's lone death penalty case proved successful after a failed attempt earlier in the year.

Kevin Isom, 46, is charged in the Aug. 6, 2007, slayings of his wife, Cassandra, 40, and two stepchildren — Michael Moore, 16, and Ci'Andria Cole, 13 — in their apartment in Gary's Miller Beach neighborhood.

Twelve jurors and five alternates were chosen this month as jury selection entered its fourth week.

In March, the number of selected jurors stalled at nine when the jury pool became depleted, prompting Lake Criminal Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. to more than double the number of candidates to 1,150.

Isom's trial has sustained numerous other delays, including a determination of his competency to stand trial and the death of his then-defense attorney, Nick Thiros. Isom's trial is set to open Jan. 7.

Bond is revoked for repeat offender in fatal DUI case

Lake Criminal Court Judge Clarence Murray in December rejected a second plea from drunken driving defendant Michael Temores to reinstate a jail bond.

Murray had revoked the bond after a Munster police officer testified Temores was seen driving on Calumet Avenue despite being prohibited from driving. Murray declared Temores a danger to the community.

In the latest of more than 100 drunken driving- and traffic-related offenses and charges, Temores, 25, faces multiple charges in a crash that killed Fred Skafgaard, 61, of Lansing, on Dec. 30, 2011.

Temores, of Munster, is charged with 19 criminal and traffic offenses related to the fatality, the most serious being a felony carrying a maximum 20-year sentence upon conviction.

Child molestation suspect returns to face charges

The arrest — and then release — of a Texas man wanted on a Lake County warrant for allegedly molesting an 11-year-old Highland girl baffled local authorities and the victim's mother alike.

But following public debates and published news reports about the county's decision not to extradite Enrique Marks Jr., 74, from Brownsville, Texas, the suspect turned himself in to the Lake County Jail in the final month of 2012.

Marks is accused of molesting the girl, a relative of his, during a visit to Highland in 2008. He then returned to Texas, and a warrant was issued for his arrest on a Class C felony.

Texas police twice stopped Marks on the warrant — once in 2009 and again in October 2012 — but released him both times when Lake County courts declined to extradite him, citing distance and cost as a factor.

Lake County Commissioner Fran DuPey, D-Hammond, vowed to fund Marks' transportation back to Lake County, but it ended up being unnecessary when the suspect returned to face the charges in December.

North Twp. improves grounds at untidy Oak Hill Cemetery

A North Township takeover of Hammond's troubled Oak Hill Cemetery — and unearthed human bones found on the premises — marked a year that ushered in both controversy and improvements at the 20-plus-acre historic graveyard.

The township assumed all legal ownership of the cemetery and vowed to hire a full time administrator following a late 2011 investigation published by The Times, which detailed some headstones discarded with trash in a debris pile, unkempt conditions and an absentee owner at the Hohman Avenue cemetery containing the graves of Civil War veterans and some of the county's earliest pioneer families.

Crews under Township Trustee Frank Mrvan worked throughout the year to clean up the cemetery, return markers to their rightful places and sift through some old dirt berms that contained human bones believed to have been accidentally unearthed during grave digging by previous management.

The trustee also obtained a state license to run the cemetery, plans to hire a full-time administrator and worked with Civil War history preservationists to replace seven broken veteran headstones in 2012.

Gary 10-month-old survives fall from third-story window

The hardscrabble city of Gary rallied around infant Kyan Powell over the summer after the baby fell out of a third-story window.

A neighbor heard the 10-month-old crying about 7:40 a.m. outside an apartment building in the 500 block of Van Buren Street. The neighbor recognized the baby and alerted the mother. After being airlifted to a Chicago intensive care unit, Powell defied the odds. Doctors in July expected him to make a full recovery.

Powell's family could not be reached last week for an update.

Gary resident wins lottery, claims $3.5 million jackpot

A story of luck from the Steel City came in December, when one Gary resident claimed a $3.5 million lottery prize.

The resident kept his or her name secret by having a lawyer claim the prize on behalf of a limited liability company, but Varinder Singh Nagra, owner of Nagra's Quik Mart, where the ticket was sold, invited the millionaire back any time.

“I want to see him if he can stop in the store and tell the full story,” Nagra told the Times earlier this month.

The resident opted for the $3.5 million payment in one lump sum rather than $10.5 million annuity over the next 30 years.

Two-fatality arson in Gary blamed on pot, game dispute

An arson at Gary's Lakeshore Dunes Apartment complex left 14 people homeless and killed a mother and daughter in July.

Bernice King helped five of her six children escape the fire, but stayed with her 14-year-old daughter Angel Harris, who couldn't escape due to severe asthma. Both died.

In December, Rafael Peluyera, 22, of Lake Station, pleaded guilty to two counts of murder in perpetration of an arson. Trevontay Milsap, 19, also of Lake Station, pleaded guilty to two counts of arson for driving Peluyera to the complex with a can of gasoline, knowing Peluyera intended to kill two men and burn their house down in what police reports say was a feud over an Xbox 360 and a half-ounce of marijuana.

Both men will be sentenced in January.

Donations for Bernice King's five remaining children can be made to “The Estate of Bernice King” at any Chase Bank branch.

Gary abandoned homes woes mount amid budget shortfalls

Abandoned homes remained a major problem for Gary in 2012, with the city estimating over the summer more than 3,000 homes lay fallow, with residents simply shutting the doors and leaving.

The homes become dangerous eyesores. A woman The Times spoke to in August was robbed twice within a few weeks by thieves who camped out in an abandoned home to see when she left. A wall of that same abandoned home fell on the neighbor on the other side while she was gardening. A woman The Times profiled in December had garbage blowing onto her property from two abandoned homes across the street.

Gary's continual budget crisis means the city doesn't have the money to tear down the thousands of abandoned homes or clear up the illegal dump sites outside.

Cline Avenue Bridge rebuild is a top priority in city

EAST CHICAGO | Administrators are continuing to pursue lower spending levels and public-private partnerships to keep the city operational.

The budget for 2013 — at $25.8 million — stands at the city's lowest ever, down $4.8 million from this year's low, and only $3 million in gaming money pledged to balance any shortfall, down from a peak of $13 million in 2010.

In August, an agreement with a private developer was reached to rebuild the Cline Avenue Bridge — closed since 2009 for safety reasons — as a toll road.

Florida-based Cline Avenue Bridge LLC offered the city an investment of between $150 million and $250 million to rebuild 1.25 miles of the former state highway over the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal between Riley Road and Indiana Harbor Drive.

Developers proposed giving the city 10 cents from each toll collected, and in return asked for 10 years of tax abatement on the new private property and 25 years of financial leverage through creation of a so-called economic revitalization area and related tax increment financing district.

Demolition of the former structure is officially completed, with the new bridge scheduled to be finished by the end of 2014.

Mayor Anthony Copeland dissolved that city's $1 million emergency medical transportation division in May, signing a five-year contract with private firm Prompt Ambulance Services of Highland.

The city made state history in November, electing a nine-member school board to replace the five-member board previously appointed by the mayor.

Dredging of the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal, considered the most polluted waterway in the Great Lakes, began in October after delays of nearly 30 years.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to remove some 4.6 million cubic yards of sediment from the harbor and canal, and permanently store the material in a 186-acre confined disposal facility built on Indianapolis Boulevard at Riley Road.

Griffith police shake-up ousts chief, second-in-command

GRIFFITH | The end of the year saw a shake-up in the Police Department, when Police Chief Ron Kottka and his second-in-command, Mike Gulley, were demoted by the Town Council.

Kotta was replaced, on an interim basis, by Cpl. Matthew Moore as the department searches for a new chief. The council said it wanted the department to go in a new direction.

Violence within The Mansards apartment complex was another hot issue and Moore plans additional patrols there. The town again was frustrated in its ongoing attempt to leave Calumet Township. Critical language was removed from one state bill and another died for lack of a third reading.

Griffith also saw the rise of a new public library when ground was broken at 45th and Colfax avenues. The 15,000 square foot complex will replace the old 8,811 square foot old library.

Longtime Fire Chief George Thiel retired after 60 years and was replaced by another longtime firefighter, Roy Schoon.

City water company fee hike sparks Illinois customer suits

HAMMOND | Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. began the year announcing the city had shelved plans to privatize its water company. He said focus would turn to contracting Hammond's water services out to Illinois communities, where the city has several customers.

Two long-term water contracts with Illinois communities came up for renewal this year, and the city successfully negotiated a new contract with Calumet City, but talks ground to a halt with Chicago Heights, whose 30-year water contract with Hammond expired in November. Chicago Heights sued Hammond in federal court over the proposed rate increase, and filed a similar complaint with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.

Hammond City Councilman Al Salinas, D-2nd, was indicted in federal court in October and pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery and four counts of willful failure to file tax returns from 2006 to 2009.

The now-former head pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Jack Schaap, pleaded guilty in September to a federal charge of having a sexual relationship with an underage parish girl. Schaap, who was fired from the Hammond church in July, admitted to having three sexual encounters with the girl beginning when she was 16. In October, the church announced it was letting go of a quarter of its staff.

At the upcoming Indiana General Assembly, McDermott intends to ask legislators to consolidate the Hammond Public Library with the Lake County system.

Hammond concentrated on improving its downtown to entice development, completing a $2.1 million beautification project featuring a new 130-space parking lot and upgrades to sections of Hohman Avenue and Russell Street this summer. 

Highland attracts car dealer, restaurant with tax incentive

HIGHLAND – From a new community center to new business, 2012 was a good year in Highland.

Over the past few years, the old Lincoln Community Center has almost been completely replaced by a two-phase reconstruction project. The modern facility features a fitness center, field house, banquet hall and dance room, along with meeting rooms, classrooms, offices and a day care center.

The town also took ownership of the historic Town Theatre in a county tax sale. Town officials want to see the building renovated and remain a theater in the future.

New businesses are also coming to town as the Town Council recently approved a tax abatement for a new Culver's restaurant at the southwest corner of Ridge Road and Cline Avenue. Also getting tax abatements were Volkswagen of Highland, moving in at 9545 Indianapolis Blvd., and Strack & Van Til for moving its corporate headquarters to 2244 45th St.

Highland Police Chief Peter Hojnicki helped create a crime task force between Highland, Munster and Griffith to focus on problem areas in all three towns. He did so by obtaining a $35,000 federal grant and offering to share it with the other departments.

Violent incidents plague area of Westfield Southlake mall

HOBART | Incidents of violence in U.S. 30 retail corridor were top stories in Hobart this year.

Three men were in police custody and later charged following a home invasion, crash and shooting on Aug. 8 that started in Porter County and ended at the U.S. 30 retail area in Hobart.

The three men confessed to breaking into a Porter County woman's home, robbing her at gunpoint and beating her, police said.

Three of the suspects were apprehended by police. A fourth suspect, 24-year-old Patrick Duffy, of Crown Point, died of a self-inflicted gunshot, Grissom said.

A dispute over a basketball game played into a fight and shooting incident Nov. 10 at Westfield Southlake mall. The mall on U.S. 30 east of Mississippi Street, was evacuated about 6:30 p.m. after a shot was fired in one of the mall's open areas when two groups of youths got into a fight.

Off-duty Hobart police officers working mall security apprehended three teens, who were later charged through Lake County Juvenile Court, Evans said.

Water quality is emphasized amid Lake Station rate hike

LAKE STATION | Issues with water took center stage in Lake Station in 2012.

Dozens of residents in early February packed the City Council meeting to learn more about a proposed 35 percent increase in their water rate. Although most residents opposed such a large increase given the economy, a few said they'd be willing to pay more if the result meant better quality water.

Lake Station officials also award $7.7 million contract for first phase of water improvement project. The first phase will include new water supply wells, new groundwater treatment plant and water main improvements.

Lake Station earned a NIPSCO award for its green efforts at its new municipal complex.

Lake Station officials abandoned plans to abolish City Court by Jan. 1, 2014. That decision was applauded by the majority of a standing-room-only crowd that came to City Hall to support City Judge Chris Anderson.

Police chief is hired,  dispatch center closed in New Chicago

NEW CHICAGO | New Chicago officials in February named Tim Lucas, 32, of Portage, the new police chief. He signed a one-year contract Feb. 8 at a salary of $32,600.

New Chicago officials in mid-September eliminated its 911 dispatch becoming the first community to consolidate with Lake County.

Calumet Avenue development continues to bolster Munster

MUNSTER | The town continued its economic development boom during 2012, adding retail, medical, business and manufacturing space.

Munster Shops by Bruce Boyer of Boyer Properties Inc. of Highland has transformed the long-vacant former Carpetland site and been a catalyst for change along Calumet Avenue, says Tom DeGiulio, Munster town manager.

Phase II is now occupied, providing the finishing touches to that portion of east Calumet Avenue.

At Mitch Simborg’s 72-acre Lake Business Center, Arland Energy Systems of Evanston, Ill., will build three manufacturing facilities including Indiana Solar One, a facility that will produce solar panels with American-made components.

The Centennial Park landfill methane gas-to energy facility is now producing electricity which the town is selling to NIPSCO.

Community Park will have two new ball fields during Phase II construction.

Thanks to donations from community organizations, businesses, Scout troops, school children and individuals, the Munster Police Department introduced the first K-9 unit in its 57-year history.

Scholars, architects confer in landmark Whiting building

WHITING | The city's importance in local history was showcased this year through its choice as 2012 home of an annual statewide architecture forum.

Every year, the Department of Natural Resources Division of Public Places and Archeology partners with the nonprofit Indiana Landmarks and the Indiana University Department of History for the preservation conferences.

Centered on the 1923 Standard Oil Co.-built Community Center, kept in the National Register of Historic Buildings through the efforts of Mayor Joe Stahura, the conference brought scholars and architects to the city, in which gasoline was first profitably made, and the modern formulation for asphalt derived.

Now owned by BP North America, the 122-year-old refinery which composes the bulk of the city is in the midst of a $3.8 billion expansion to better manufacture gasoline and jet fuel from Canadian crude oil, bringing as many as 9,000 contractors to the site as adjunct to the refinery's 1,900 regular employees.

Nearly a dozen new restaurants have opened along 119th Street to feed the new arrivals, and space is currently at a premium, with new medical and law offices adding to a mix that includes retail choices, art galleries, a movie house showing first-run films, a European delicatessen and eight restaurants — with three more scheduled to open early next year.

The newly built Oil City Stadium at the eastern end of 199th Street got some extra attention last spring when the Northwest Indiana Oilmen Baseball Club, one of eight teams in the Midwest Collegiate League, began its 46-game season with a home opener at Standard Diamonds Park. The new baseball field on 119th Street opened in 2011 and also serves as home for the Whiting High School Oilers and the Calumet College of St. Joseph Crimson Wave teams.

Infrastructure for a $43 million upgrade at Lakefront Park was completed last with financial assistance from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

The renovation plan includes a two-tiered boardwalk along the shore, a boat harbor, concert venue, and connections to hiking and biking trails between downtown Chicago and much of the Calumet Region.

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