Porter County 2013 Year in Review

2013-12-29T00:00:00Z 2013-12-29T09:43:03Z Porter County 2013 Year in ReviewTimes Staff nwitimes.com
December 29, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Teacher charged with stealing cash from school's classrooms

VALPARAISO | A longtime middle school science teacher was arrested in April on charges he took small amounts of cash from the desks of other teachers at the school.

According to court documents, security video showed Randal Kerns, 55, of Valparaiso, entering the school March 23, the first Saturday of the school's spring break.

Police said Kerns entered several classrooms around the building and the school office. On April 5 police met with Kerns, who told officers he had taken money recently from the desks of three other teachers.

He told a detective he had been taking money for the last two or three years, “obtaining a couple hundred dollars which he had no intention of paying back.” He did not give police a reason for taking the money but said it was his way of dealing with personal issues, according to court documents.

Body found near Hebron identified as Akron, Ind., man

BOONE TOWNSHIP | The body found April 15 in a ditch near Hebron was identified as an Akron, Ind., man, according to the Porter County Sheriff's Department.

Ruben Paredes, 32, was reported missing in February to Akron police by his wife.

Paredes died of an apparent gunshot wound, Porter County Coroner Chuck Harris said.

Police said Parades was last seen Feb. 1. His wife reported him missing at 12:15 a.m. Feb. 3 when she hadn't heard from him.

Fleck said his department opened a missing person's investigation.

The case was never solved. Anyone with information about Paredes' death or anyone who may have seen any suspicious activity recently in the area where his body was found is asked to call Cmdr. Jeff Biggs at (219) 477-3141.

Valparaiso University fraternity loses charter

VALPARAISO | A fraternity at Valparaiso University lost its national charter in April — bringing an end to its 53 years on campus.

The Beta Lambda chapter of the Sigma Tau Gamma fraternity had its charter revoked by its national board of directors.

Carolyn Whittier, assistant dean of students for Greek life, leadership and volunteer programs, said the revocation came April 2 after violations of both university and national fraternity policy, although she would not specify the infractions.

Local residents rally around puppies dumped on road

PORTER | Local animal activists and the public rallied around 17 puppies that were dumped May 10 on State Park Road near Ind. 49.

A resident of the area reported someone in a gold SUV dumped a mother and nine puppies. Another seven puppies were spotted just down the road a short time later.

Lakeshore PAWS, a local foster organization, took the puppies, which appear to be from two separate litters.

All of the puppies were quickly adopted. The driver of the gold SUV was never identified.

Luke Co. purchases Valpo's Strongbow Inn

VALPARAISO | Strongbow Inn, famous for its turkey dinners and turkey pies, was sold to Hobart-based Luke Co.

The sale was announced July 1 by owners Russ and Nancy Adams.

Strongbow Turkey Farm was established in the 1930s by Dr. Walter and Bess Thrun, Russ Adams’ grandparents. Today, the restaurant and banquet facility can serve up to 500 people. It employs 130 people.

The Luke Co., a family-owned company based in Hobart, was established in 1967 by Ralph Luke. It is now owned by Tom Collins Sr., Tom Collins Jr. and Ryan Richardson. It owns and operates 25 convenience stores, the $5 Carwash and County Line Orchard.

The new owners said Luke is committed to maintaining quality food and service.

Massachusetts woman dies after golf cart accident

DUNE ACRES | A Massachusetts woman died July 14 after police said she fell from a golf cart operated by a man arrested on a drunken driving charge.

Police said Jennie Welch, 25, of Brighton, Mass., died at IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. Police said she had suffered a head injury.

Jason Pelton, 27, of San Francisco, was arrested on multiple drunken driving charges.

Police said they were driving home from a wedding, came down a steep hill and the cart began began to vibrate.

Pelton told police Welch apparently fell off.

9-hour standoff ends when police find man hiding in closet

JACKSON TOWNSHIP | A 45-year-old man was arrested after barricading himself in his home on County Road 1050 North for nearly nine hours.

Eric Martin was arrested about 9 p.m. Aug. 14 after officers found him hiding in a closet in the house, said Sgt. Larry LaFlower, of the Porter County Sheriff's Department.

Martin was shot with nonlethal ammunition, LaFlower said. He said tactical officers fired tear gas into the home, but that did not drive Martin out.

Officials used two robots, usually used by the county's bomb squad, to allow officers to see inside the home without having to send in personnel.

Martin was charged with six counts of attempted murder, seven counts of criminal recklessness and one count of aggravated battery.

Martin is being held at the Porter County Jail, however, because of his behavioral issues, he has not been formally booked in, said Porter County police Sgt. Larry LaFlower.

Cops: Firefighter drives van into home, sparks blaze

HEBRON | A Hobart firefighter barred from his house rammed a van into the residence this month while police inside spoke to his wife about an earlier domestic incident, authorities said.

The crash sparked a fire, and the man told the officers "Just shoot me," before climbing back into the burning vehicle, police said.

John Wall, 48, of 617-4 W. 650 South, was badly burned. He was being treated at Loyola Medical Center in Maywood.

December’s incident came on the heels of a Nov. 23 incident at the family’s home where police said Wall pointed a gun at his wife, then fired that gun during a fight with her in a barn on their property. She was not hurt in the shooting.

Same man suspected in four Valpo armed robberies

VALPARAISO | Police continue to investigating four armed robberies in three and a half weeks, and believe all four were carried out by the same person.

The Save Gas Station at 908 N. Roosevelt Road was robbed just before 6 p.m. Dec. 18. Police believe that armed robbery was connected to the robbery Dec. 15 at Buz's Liquor Store at 1805 E. Lincolnway, and two robberies at the Valpo Quick Trip convenience store, 360 Lincolnway on Nov. 22 and Dec. 3.

The suspect is described as about 5 feet 8 inches tall and 160 pounds, with a dark complexion. He has worn the same clothing in all of the robberies, which is a dark hooded sweatshirt with a diamond type print on it, dark pants and white shoes. He also wears a mask and gloves.

Officers have gone door to door in several areas handing out fliers to residents, asking them to watch for someone matching the description of the robber.

Police are also meeting with business owners to make sure they're aware of the situation and how to prepare or react.

Anyone with information is asked to call “WeTip” at (800) 78-Crime or the Valparaiso Police Department at (219) 462-2135. There is a reward available.

Residents can also contact police anonymously by texting to TIP411 (847411) and enter the keyword "Valpo" before sending the message.

Portage switches to automated trash/recycling system

Portage residents changed the way their trash and recycling was collected this year.

In an effort to improve efficiency, residents were provided with two 96-gallon toters, one for trash and the second for recycling. The goal was to reduce costs by increasing recycling, thus decreasing the amount of trash going to the landfill. Officials said the new system would reduce workers' compensation claims by reducing injuries to employees. It's also expected to cut workforce costs by eventually eliminating the need for three-man trash and recycling crews.

The new system was a work in progress throughout 2013 as the city purchased additional equipment to complete the automated system and made efforts to educate residents about the program.

The switch to one-man crews is expected to be completed early next year.

Portage welcomed few retailers this year

Commercial growth remained relatively slow in Portage this year.

The highlight of the year was the opening of the Meijer store in a building vacated in early 2012 by Kmart. Meijer purchased the building at the corner of U.S. 6 and Willowcreek Road and conducted extensive interior and exterior renovations to the building and property. As part of the development, Meijer also opened a gas station on an outlot.

Just to the west on U.S. 6 Family Express constructed a new gas station/convenience store. The facility opened in November.

Other changes to the retail landscape in the city include remodeling the former Walgreens store on Central Avenue. Pet Supplies Plus and a pool supply store are slated to fill that vacant space. Shay Furniture also located in a vacant building along Central Avenue, near the University Center, in the fall. Lynn's Bedroom City broke ground for a new store in 2013.

Portage schools restructure building entrances for safety

Shortly after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Portage Township Schools officials began looking at ways to make their school buildings safer.

Entrances to eight Portage Township Schools buildings were reconfigured over the summer to make them more secure.

A contract with Gariup Construction of Gary for $174,900 was approved to better secure entrance ways to Portage High Schools' east and west buildings, as well as Fegeley Middle School and Saylor, South Haven, Kyle, Central and Aylesworth elementary schools to "funnel" visitors from the outermost set of entrance doors directly into an office.

Portage police K-9 unit revitalized

After a couple of years of not having a K-9 unit as part of the Portage Police Department, the unit was resurrected with the purchase of four dogs.

Three dogs were added to the department early in 2013 with the fourth dog added in the fall. With four units, it allows a K-9 team to work each shift.

Funds for the Portage dogs came through donations and grants. While the city has picked up some of the tab for equipment and handler costs, veterinary care is donated, and K-9 officers have held three fundraisers to help support the unit.

Redevelopment on Portage's north side continues

Plans to redevelop the city's north side continued in 2013.

Officials and consultants worked on a U.S. 20 redevelopment plan throughout the year.

The city also purchased several properties along the corridor and completed demolishing a few.

Don's Motel and Castaway Motel, both on the west side of the city on U.S. 20, met their fate during the year, razed to make way for redevelopment.

The city's Redevelopment Commission also purchased an old bait shop and smoke shop along the U.S. 20 corridor, both of which will be demolished.

In addition, the city demolish the Portage Yacht Club. The structure had been the home of the Midwest Steel Supervisor's Club until purchased by the city many years ago. The facility was operated by the Portage Parks Department as a banquet rental facility until it was determined that extensive repairs were not cost-effective.

Boyfriend given 40 years for role in Jada Justice death

HOBART | 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 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 Jada Justice

HOBART/PORTAGE | 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 brought up on neglect charges after her cousin, Engelica Castillo, and Castillo's boyfriend, Timothy Tkachik, then of Hobart, were convicted on charges 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.

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