Gunman holds office workers hostage in Valpo, kills himself
VALPARAISO | A 48-year-old former Valparaiso resident brought a halt to the busy five-point intersection on Calumet Avenue on May 25 when he walked into the nearby Prudential Executive Group building, fired several rounds into the air with a handgun and held employees hostage for much of the day.
Police exchanged gunfire with Roy Ferguson briefly and shot him in the chest, but the coroner later determined it was Ferguson who brought the scene to an end when he shot himself twice in the head.
The standoff drew large crowds under a blazing sun.
Indiana National Guard unit returns after losing 6 members
GARY | An Indiana National Guard unit that lost six members of its company during a nearly yearlong deployment in Afghanistan returned Sept. 25 to Northwest Indiana.
Eighty-nine members of the Valparaiso-based 713th Engineer Company were greeted by about 300 relatives and friends as the unit arrived at the Gary Army Aviation Support Facility at the Gary/Chicago International Airport.
Six members of the unit were killed in action, and a seventh was injured during the unit's deployment in Afghanistan.
The company's mission involved patrolling roads and clearing away roadside bombs in Kandahar Province for 10.5 months.
The dangerous work took its toll on the unit.
Sgt. Brian Leonhardt, 21, of Merrillville; Spc. Christopher Patterson, 20, a Valparaiso University student from Aurora, Ill.; and Spc. Robert Tauteris Jr., 44, of Hamlet, Ind., were killed Jan. 6 when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb. Staff Sgt. Jonathan Metzger, 32, of Indianapolis, also was killed by the roadside bomb.
Spc. Doug Rachowicz, of Hammond, was badly injured.
Spc. Sergio E. Perez, 21, of Schererville, and Spc. Nicholas A. Taylor, 20, of Berne, Ind., were killed during an attack in July that included fire from rocket-propelled grenades and small arms.
Porter County Dems sweep in council, commissioner races
VALPARAISO | From president on down to the County Council, every Democratic candidate who ran countywide in the November general election won more local votes than their Republican challengers.
While the local votes did not add up enough to stand in the way of several Republican victories at the state level, including the governor's office, they did result in a sweep of the County Council and commissioner races.
Michael Simpson, vice chairman of the Porter County Republican Party, said part of the reason for the easing of the GOP stronghold on the county is the influx of residents from such traditionally Democratic areas as Lake County and Illinois.
He said GOP officials will go back to the drawing board, refine their approach and review the tactic of sending out last-minute fliers that some Democrats criticized as negative campaigning.
Porter County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Chidester said, "I don't think Porter County is blue or red. What is it, purple?"
Child molestation, exploitation case results in 23 convictions
VALPARAISO | In a case described as one of the county's most disturbing sex crimes, a jury found Center Township resident Ryan Schroeder guilty Dec. 20 on all 23 counts related to aiding in child molestation and exploitation.
This trial featured unusually graphic testimony alleging Schroeder directed several women to take pornographic photos and videos of children and unsuspecting women in various state of undress and in toilet stalls. He also was accused of having the women steal underwear and carry out other various sexual activities.
Schroeder, 27, will be sentenced Jan. 22. He and faces between 20 and 50 years in prison on each of the five Class A felony counts alone.
Valpo School Board reinstates handful of position after cuts
VALPARAISO | With revenue projections looking slightly better than expected, Valparaiso School Board members in July reinstated a number of positions lost in an earlier round of budget cuts, including 19 instructional aides.
At July’s School Board meeting, Trustee Jim Jorgensen said the board promised to re-evaluate cuts made as the district grappled with a $3.2 million deficit.
Nearly 70 aide positions were cut at the end of the school year.
Several music and athletic department positions were reinstated. But Jorgensen said that in the future the board may need to look at all athletic programs and see if the the district still can afford a full slate of offerings.
Family, friends mourn county officer killed in off-duty crash
LIBERTY TOWNSHIP | Family, friends and more than 150 police officers from around Indiana gathered to remember Phil Pratt, 24, a Porter County sheriff's officer who was killed May 16 in an off-duty motorcycle crash.
While many were brought to tears during the May 22 service, family members and colleagues who spoke at Liberty Bible Church focused their attention on Pratt's lighthearted side and his penchant for practical jokes.
Pratt, 24, died from injuries suffered in an off-duty crash.
Pratt was driving his motorcycle west on Ind. 2 when the driver of an eastbound pickup truck turned north on County Road 450 East. The wreck occurred as the truck was turning on the road, police said. Pratt was taken to Porter hospital in Valparaiso and later died from his injuries. The 85-year-old driver of the pickup truck was not injured.
Hammond man charged with Valpo-area double homicide
CENTER TOWNSHIP | A 19-year-old Hammond man was charged after officers encountered him outside a house April 7 where two people lay shot inside and his semiautomatic assault rifle was found outside, police said.
Julius Garza was charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of Jeffery Trinka, 40, of Valparaiso, and Jennifer Guinn, 31, of Hammond.
Porter County police dispatchers received a call from Guinn, who told them her friend had been shot. Dispatchers then heard gunshots, and the woman went silent, documents state.
Dispatchers traced the woman's cellphone to the area of Emmetsburg Avenue and Lincolnway in Center Township, and Valparaiso police arrived at the scene four minutes later, documents show.
Valparaiso and Porter County sheriff's officers went inside and found Trinka dead. Guinn still was alive in the living room and was taken to Porter hospital in Valparaiso, where she later died from multiple gunshot wounds.
Portage man pleads guilty in crash that killed mo-ped driver
PORTAGE TOWNSHIP | A Valparaiso man riding a mo-ped was struck April 2 by a driver who left the scene and then run over by another motorist who called for help, officials said.
Franklin Ivey, 22, of Valparaiso, was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash in the area of County Roads 500 West and 700 North.
Investigators determined Ivey was hit by a passing vehicle and left for dead in the road, where he was later run over by a second driver, police said.
Investigators determined Ivey was struck first by Reinaldo Figueroa III, 20, of Portage, who pleaded guilty in November to leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in death. He faces two to eight years behind bars if the proposed plea is accepted by Porter Circuit Judge Mary Harper. Sentencing is set for Feb. 20.
Charges dropped in Valparaiso slaying after witnesses recant
VALPARAISO | A murder charge was dismissed in October against a Valparaiso man accused of killing his stepdaughter Feb. 21 in the family's Courtney Street home.
The Porter County prosecutor's office said the move was taken because three individuals, who initially gave statements implicating Allen Warnes in the murder of 22-year-old Shawnna Forgus, later recanted their claims.
Forgus, a mother of two, was found dead on a mattress placed on the floor with "obvious trauma to her face, head and neck area," police said.
Warnes, who was 55 at the time of the killing, denied his wife's accusations he was upset with Forgus, court documents state. He said the only way he could have been upstairs the night his stepdaughter was killed was if he were sleepwalking, documents state.
Forgus' mother, Rebecca Warnes, who was among those to recant their statements, said she saw Forgus' boyfriend's car leaving the house on the morning her daughter was found dead.
Warnes testified during a bond hearing in May she did not remember much of what she told police. Warnes said she sent a one-legged, legally blind resident of the house to the second floor to check on her daughter because Warnes is afraid of heights.
Duneland voters approve school tax hike referendum
CHESTERTON | Voters spoke loudly on both sides of the Duneland School Corp.'s tax referendum. In the end, voters approved a 22-cent tax increase per $100 of assessed property value for a period of seven years to aid the district's operating fund.
The measure passed with 50.95 percent of the vote — a difference of just 153 votes.
Superintendent Dirk Baer said, "Obviously we're very pleased with the support from our local taxpayers and would have certainly liked a larger victory, but we're happy with what we have. We think it was the right decision."
After years of cutting staff and programs, school administration began conducting public forums in February and the School Board voted unanimously in February to place the decision in voters' hands.
New mayor starts term with goal of fixing Portage finances
PORTAGE | The new year signaled a new mayor in Portage in 2012.
James Snyder, who defeated incumbent Democrat Olga Velazquez in November 2011, took office Jan. 1. The first Republican mayor in about three decades, Snyder also became the city's youngest mayor at 33.
Snyder started the year aiming to fix the city's finances. To that end, the administration offered early retirement packages with more than a dozen employees taking the buyouts. He also put a freeze on hiring, reducing the total number of employees by about 20.
Snyder also proposed a change in trash and recycling services. The deal was finalized in the fall, and residents should see changes in January and February.
Two homicides in two months keep police in Portage busy
PORTAGE | There were two murders in Portage in 2012, coming less than a month apart.
Carl Griffith Sr. was gunned down in his front yard in the 2700 block of Locust Street on Nov. 1.
Sheaurice Major, 42, of Portage, was arrested days later and was charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder. She is accused of hiring Dontaye Singletary, 20, of Gary, to kill Griffith. Singletary turned himself in to police about two weeks after the slaying.
Wilson Rivera, 38, of Indianapolis, formerly of Gary, was found shot to death Dec. 10 alongside a vehicle in the 2100 block of Crisman Road.
Police were called to the scene when a resident reported hearing gunfire. Rivera, who had numerous arrests in Porter County during the last 14 years, was found on the ground, outside a vehicle.
Police are continuing to investigate his death.
Portage's University Center opens without WorkOne office
PORTAGE | The $6.3 million University Center officially opened in August.
Construction of the building began in 2011 under the leadership of former Mayor Olga Velazquez. The building was to serve as both a higher education facility and as the new home of WorkOne.
When Mayor James Snyder took office in 2012, he ended the relationship with WorkOne, saying he didn't believe the unemployment offices were a proper fit.
However, Snyder completed lease agreements with Ivy Tech Community College and Indiana University Northwest. Both colleges began offering classes in the center in August. The city approved an additional lease agreement in November with Purdue University North Central, which will begin offering classes in January.
New Vistas High School opens to diploma-seekers of all ages
PORTAGE | New Vistas High School, operated by Neighbors Educational Opportunities Inc., officially opened its doors Sept. 3.
Enrollment at the school, which is open to anyone wanting to obtain their high school diploma but targets students seeking an alternative to traditional high schools, was 163 on opening day.
NEO took over operations of the former Portage Adult Education Center the year before and was granted a charter for the high school in December 2011.
The inaugural class of New Vistas High School ranges in age from 15 to middle age. The students came from around the region with the majority of them only have a handful of credits to complete graduation requirements.
Valpo, Portage Township see changes in education leaders
Both Valparaiso Community Schools and Portage Township Schools saw changes in leadership in 2012.
Portage Township Superintendent Mike Berta announced his retirement early in the year effective June 30. Assistant Superintendent E. Ric Frataccia was announced as Berta's replacement. Frataccia accepted the job on an interim basis for two years.
In the meantime, Valparaiso Superintendent Andrew Melin announced in June that he would be leaving to take a job with the Greater Clark County Schools district in Jefferson, Ind.
Berta was tapped to take Melin's job and is currently serving as interim superintendent for the Valparaiso school district.
Retail, industrial development helps boost Portage economy
PORTAGE | While the economy staggered forward at a snail's pace, there was some development in Portage.
In January, Meijer announced it had purchased the Kmart building on U.S. 6 and Willowcreek Road. Kmart shuttered operations in spring, and Meijer began gutting and renovating the building. The project continued throughout 2012. The Meijer, along with a new gas station, is slated to open in spring 2013.
Also during the year, Ratner Steel broke ground on a $15 million, 102,000-square-foot facility at the Port of Indiana, which was to create 40 new jobs.
Fronius, the Austrian company which makes solar inverters, continued work on its new U.S. headquarters and manufacturing facility at AmeriPlex at the Port business park. The company completed renovations to an approximate 400,000-square-foot facility.
Indiana Pickling and Processing also began a $7.2 million expansion project at its facility.
Valparaiso, INDOT agree on Lincolnway, U.S. 30 funding
VALPARAISO | More changes are in store for motorists along two of the city's main roads following a major transportation announcement in 2012.
The big news early in the year was an agreement between Valparaiso and the Indiana Department of Transportation that transferred Lincolnway to the city to maintain. The agreement included about $2 million for improvements to the road, and Valparaiso agreed to extend its jurisdiction all the way to Ind. 149 over the next dozen years.
The deal also included a promise from INDOT of another $18 million in federal highway funds for improvements to the U.S. 30 corridor through the city during the next decade.
The city previously had hired Kendig Kiest Collaborative to do a study of the U.S. 30 corridor and how to make it more attractive to developers and more traffic and pedestrian friendly. The study recommended pedestrian bridges, pathways, parks, transit stops and intersection improvements, which the funding would help accomplish.
Vale Park, Ind. 49 interchange expected to increase safety
VALPARAISO | The long-sought and planned-for interchange at Ind. 49 and Vale Park Road was built and opened in time for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Most of the work was funded by the Indiana Department of Transportation, but the original diamond interchange design was altered and a number of changes were introduced at the city's request. Changes included adding a pathway to the bridge, decorative lighting, the city's name on both sides highlighted with back lighting and colored sand-dune swirls in the bridge's concrete.
The project also included a roundabout at each end of the bridge rather than the traditional crossroads intersection. A number of landscaping features will be added in the future.
The old intersection had been the scene of many accidents over the years, including at least two fatal crashes.
Urschel Laboratories leaving Valpo to build in Chesterton
VALPARAISO | After decades of growth at the corner of Vale Park Road and Calumet Avenue in Valparaiso, Urschel Laboratories Inc. officials decided the company needed more room to meet its future needs and found it in Chesterton.
The company's departure was perhaps the second biggest in city history, behind only the move of Porter hospital's Valparaiso Campus from the downtown in August. While the hospital site will soon become part of Valparaiso University's campus, the fate of the Urschel building is yet to be determined.
The Urschel family is leaving behind a legacy across Vale Park Road at Cumberland Crossing shopping center. The Urschels not only redeveloped the site of the former County Seat Plaza, they also donated land and a significant portion of the funds needed to build the new Valparaiso YMCA to anchor the new shopping center.
Central Park Plaza proves so popular expansion is planned
VALPARAISO | Long before the new downtown park was old enough to celebrate its first birthday, the city announced it would be expanded along Indiana Avenue adjacent to the amphitheater.
The park has proven a very popular gathering place since opening in August 2011, and plans for the new segment will be finalized in the next couple of months in preparation for fundraising in 2013. All this is aimed at construction of the addition, possibly with a skating rink, in 2014.
A popular new feature was added to the park in September with the unveiling of a statue of popcorn icon Orville Redenbacher. The statue sits, literally, on a park bench at the north entrance to the park. Not only do people like to see him and get their picture taken with him, the statue has a growing Twitter following.
Cell tower leases net Hebron $600,000 in new revenue
HEBRON | The announcement that a hardware store will be moving into a vacant space at the north end of town in the coming months was certainly good news for Hebron, but the town had a couple of other bits of good news in 2012.
Hebron has cellphone antennas on its water tower and on a cellular tower located on town property. Both were earning the town a modest annual rent before Crown Castle offered to relieve the town of the bookkeeping hassles in exchange for a tidy sum.
At first the company offered about $300,000 as its "best offer." When the town decided to seek bids from others, Crown Castle upped its best offer to $600,000, even offering almost $400,000 just to lease the two for 40 years.
The final agreement was approved earlier this month, and the money was divided between the town's general fund and the Water Department fund. The town maintains ownership of the water tower and could earn additional money from new antenna leases by Crown Castle.
Redevelopment board to fund addition to Hebron fire station
HEBRON | Fire Chief Chad Franzman told the Hebron Redevelopment Commission he would like three additional bays and a second story on the existing fire station, and the commission has said it will try to accommodate him.
The Fire Department has talked to Porter Regional Hospital about stationing an ambulance in Hebron to serve the south Porter County area. For now, the department has nowhere to house it. It also needs more space for training and other activities.
Pangere Corp. is working on plans and determining whether the existing building will be able to handle the addition, but Franzman work can begin in the new year.