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News Briefs: No danger from substance on court letter

Editor's note: The following is a collection of news briefs from Forum Communication Company newspapers in Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin.


No danger from substance on court letter

ST. PAUL -- A suspicious substance on a letter mailed to the Minnesota Supreme Court was not hazardous, the state Public Safety Department reported Tuesday.

The St. Paul Fire Department removed the letter from a state building Tuesday and tested it.

Public Safety Spokesman Bruce Gordon said Wednesday that the investigation continues. “The letter did not contain a specific threat and no additional precautions are being taken at this time regarding this matter.”

Gordon did not say much more about the incident, which resulted in several emergency trucks in the Capitol complex Tuesday.

Woman found in Duluth alley being treated for frostbite

DULUTH -- A woman found in an alley Sunday morning was in serious condition Wednesday at a St. Paul hospital, where she is being treated for frostbite.

Duluth police said they were called at 9:38 a.m. Sunday to assist an ambulance crew and the Duluth Fire Department after a passerby noticed 30-year-old Erin Coons.

Emergency responders estimate that she had been in the cold for a few hours. She was conscious.

She was sent to Essentia Health St. Mary’s Medical Center and then transferred to Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

The temperature at the time Coons was discovered was about minus 20.

Regions Hospital in St. Paul is where University of Minnesota Duluth sophomore Alyssa Lommel is being treated after she was found outside in early December. Lommel was moved from the intensive care unit there this week as more frostbite victims came in, including Coons.


Fargo man gets 30 years in child porn case

FARGO -- A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced a Fargo man to 30 years in prison for sexually molesting and taking pornographic videos and photos of girls ages 2 to 6.

Victims’ family members, the prosecutor and even U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Erickson said they wanted a harsher sentence for Dustin Muscha, 33, who faced up to 80 years in prison for two counts of sexual exploitation of minors and two counts of possession of materials involving the sexual exploitation of minors.

But the prospect of dragging victims and their families through a trial, among other complicating factors, led to a plea deal after Muscha pleaded guilty in June.

Muscha was arrested in October 2012 after investigators determined the cellphone -- found at a Fargodome concert a month earlier and turned in at a Sprint store -- belonged to Muscha.

His phone and other electronics in Muscha’s storage unit had more than 500 pornographic photos and 13 videos taken over the last decade. The four victims were in his care at the time the images were recorded.

After serving his sentence, Muscha will spend the rest of his life on supervised release with more than a dozen strict conditions.

Man pleads guilty in killing on Spirit Lake Reservation

A Bismarck man pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges of voluntary manslaughter, assault resulting in serious bodily injury and assault with a dangerous weapon stemming from an incident on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation almost a year ago.

Orlen Francis Smith Jr., 26, a member of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, was accused of being involved in an altercation with his brother, Daniel Smith, at his home in St. Michael, N.D., on Feb. 13. Smith Jr. swung a switchblade at his brother, striking the side of his chest and piercing his heart, according to a news release issued Wednesday by U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon.

Daniel Smith died at the scene.

Smith Jr. attacked two others at the home, including one person who suffered a forehead laceration, the release said.

The voluntary manslaughter charge carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, while each of the other charges carries a maximum penalty of 10 years.

Smith Jr. will be sentenced April 7.

April trial set for ex-teacher accused of sex with teen

GRAFTON, N.D. -- Justin Kiefer, a former fifth-grade teacher in Park River, has pleaded not guilty to felony charges alleging he had sex with a 16-year-old girl in November in the Walsh County town.

State District Judge Richard Geiger on Friday set Kiefer’s pretrial hearing for March 18, with his jury trial slated to start April 2.

Kiefer, released last fall on $25,000 bond, is living in his home state of South Dakota in Aberdeen, according to court officials. He appeared Friday at his arraignment in state district court in Grafton, represented by local attorney Todd Burianek.

Kiefer, 25, was charged in November with two counts of corruption or solicitation of a minor, alleging he had sexual intercourse with a girl who was a Park River High School student twice that month in Park River. Each count is a Class C felony with a maximum prison sentence of five years.

Heitkamp seeks information on derailments near Casselton

CASSELTON, N.D. -- Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is asking federal regulators for more information on the history of train derailments near Casselton, where a derailment caused a fiery explosion last week.

In a statement, Heitkamp said she asked the Federal Railroad Administration how often it had inspected the stretch of tracks just west of Casselton, and whether any special attention will be given to that area.

Over the last decade, three derailments, including the fiery crash Dec. 30, occurred in nearly the same spot, according to accident data from the FRA. A fourth happened two miles away.

“It is important for me and the people of North Dakota to understand what actions were taken before the derailment, and to determine the current quality of the rails in this area in particular,” Heitkamp said in the statement.

Heitkamp also requested a review of the track quality in the area to see whether any upgrades or changes in operating speed are necessary.


Woman dies of injuries suffered in house fire

ROBERTS, Wis. -- A 66-year-old woman died Wednesday of injuries suffered in a house fire Tuesday night in the village of Roberts.

The blaze started around 6:30 p.m. Rescuers – Roberts police Officer Todd Shafer and Wisconsin State Patrol Trooper Robert Unruh -- found Roberta Eastman inside the house and were able to get her out.

She was taken to Hudson Hospital and then to Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

The Wisconsin fire marshal is investigating the cause. Foul play is not suspected, and a lit cigarette is believed to be at least partly to blame.

Wisconsin jobless rates lowest in Pierce, St. Croix counties

MADISON, Wis. -- When it comes to low unemployment, Pierce and St. Croix counties led the way near the end of 2013, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

The department’s latest figures from November put the jobless rate in Pierce County at 3.4 percent, with St. Croix County right behind at 3.7 percent. Those are the lowest rates among Wisconsin counties.

Dane County, which includes Madison, was third lowest at 4 percent, followed by Calumet and Trempealeau counties, both at 4.2 percent.

Iron County had the highest rate in the state at 13.2 percent, followed by Menomonee, 10.7; Bayfield, 10.3; Vilas, 9.5; and Sawyer, 9.2.

The department said jobless rates decreased or remained the same in 19 of the 72 counties between October and November.