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2014: A year of exciting beginnings, tragic endings

2014 was a year of exciting beginnings in Douglas County. A new school opened in Alexandria and Broadway was completely reconstructed. It was also a year marred by tragic endings - an officer-involved shooting that ended in murder-suicide, and ve...

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Alexandria’s Broadway project took place in three phases throughout the summer. (Echo Press file photo)

2014 was a year of exciting beginnings in Douglas County.

A new school opened in Alexandria and Broadway was completely reconstructed.
It was also a year marred by tragic endings – an officer-involved shooting that ended in murder-suicide, and vehicle crashes that cut five lives short.
Politics also took center stage, from a four-way race for sheriff and two contested county board elections to a shake-up in the Alexandria City Council.
The Echo Press editorial staff took a look back at the stories that made headlines in 2014 and came up with this list of the top five:

1. NEW SCHOOL

The Alexandria Area High School opened for its first-ever day of school this past September.
The new $73 million school was approved by voters through a referendum in September 2011. More than $5 million was raised through a capital campaign, donations, grants and other revenues.
Located near the intersection of 50th Avenue and Pioneer Road, the new campus features an eco-friendly design, personalized learning academies for students in grades 9-12, a 1,013-seat performing arts center, state-of-the-art athletic facilities and more.

2. BROADWAY PROJECT

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This was a story that affected anyone who traveled through the heart of Alexandria this past summer.
In the planning stages for more than five years, the $5.7 million project between Third and Eighth Avenue began with a groundbreaking ceremony on May 12. Bit by bit, the work progressed, mostly on schedule, and was essentially completed on time and on budget by October 15.
Besides giving the downtown area a whole new look with pedestrian friendly touches such as benches, a bicycle walking path and shorter crosswalks, the project also replaced aging water and sewer lines buried deep beneath the city.
Because Broadway serves as a state highway, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and state aid covered the bulk of the cost.
Stories about the Broadway project, which included two parties in the street to celebrate the progress and completion, made the front page of the newspaper 15 times in 2014.

3. CRIME

Several serious crimes shocked Douglas County residents throughout the year.
In February, two suspects from Fargo, Katie Rae Christopherson and Devin Blowers, were found dead after a shoot-out with a Douglas County deputy, Dustin Alexander. Authorities determined that Blowers shot Christopherson before turning the gun on himself.
Blowers was reportedly distraught because child welfare officials in Fargo wouldn’t let the couple have custody of their baby girl. The two suspects had a history of drug and alcohol-related problems.
Alexander was struck in the chest during the shootout and survived because he was wearing a bullet-proof vest. He was later cleared of any wrong-doing.
On that same weekend, a series of armed robberies began in Alexandria. Over the course of a month, three stores were hit, Subway, Premiere Video and Super America. In two instances, the robber sexually assaulted female clerks.
A suspect, Michael Wayne Warren of Alexandria, who is a registered sex offender, was arrested on March 21. He was charged with 12 felony counts. A settlement conference is scheduled for January 8.
In May, the Douglas County Attorney’s Office dismissed murder charges against Kody Klimek, who was accused of fatally stabbing Phillip Altstadt near the Lincoln Estates apartment complex in Alexandria on June 1, 2013. Two key witnesses who saw the stabbing couldn’t be located for trial. Klimek said he was acting in self-defense.
Also in May, Amanda Peltier of Starbuck was found guilty of murdering 4-year-old Eric Dean, the son of her live-in fiance. She was sentenced to life in prison.
The boy’s death sparked outrage throughout the state because evidence at the trial showed that he’d suffered physical abuse for years.
In July, Jacob Dale, 19, of Alexandria was sentenced to 41 months in prison for driving drunk in a crash that killed his passenger, Landon Lien of Carlos on May 25, 2013.
Judge David Battey gave Dale the maximum amount under a plea agreement reached a couple of months prior to the sentencing.
On September 30, multiple handguns and rifles, along with other items, were stolen from two pawn shops in Alexandria. Three suspects, William Olsen, Dijon Bianco and Dylan Trudell, all from Alexandria, were later arrested.
Halloween was marred by two unrelated robberies in Alexandria.

In one incident a man brandished a handgun at a person he knew who was in a car parked near Melody Lane and demanded money. When the victim told him he didn’t have any money, the suspect struck him in the face with the handgun.
A suspect, Timothy Robinson of Alexandria, was arrested the next day.
The other incident happened at a residence on 11th Avenue East when four males with hoodies and ski masks entered the house brandishing long guns and demanded drugs and weapons from a 14-year-old boy who was home alone.
After a six-week investigation, four suspects were arrested for the crime – Caleb Styer, Kolton Neely, Devon Van Scoik and a 14-year-old boy.
On December 18, a search for a 15-year-old female runaway led to the arrest of three people and the recovery of a stolen vehicle. Two of the suspects face felony charges. Ryan Fitzgerald of Alexandria was charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct and Dustin Pennig of White Bear Lake was charged with possession of stolen property.

4. ELECTIONS

A lively primary election drew four candidates into the race for Douglas County sheriff. Incumbent Troy Wolbersen was challenged by Rich Homan, Scot Umlauf and Greg Windhurst. Wolbersen and Homan went on to square off in the general election, where Wolbersen prevailed.
Three seats on the Alexandria City Council were contested. The winners were incumbents Virgil Batesole and Dave Benson, along with newcomer, Bob Kuhlman, who defeated incumbent Roger Thalman, and another challenger, Mark Pederson.
Owen Miller won an open race in Douglas County Commissioner District 5 over Chuck Nettestad after incumbent Dan Olson decided not to seek another term. Incumbent Jim Stratton won the other contested commissioner seat, District 2, defeating Jon Gaugert.

On the state level, local voters solidly backed the three Republicans running for representative – Mary Franson in District 8B, Paul Anderson in District 12B and newcomer Jeff Backer in District 12A.
Douglas County voters bucked trends and supported Republicans in all the statewide races. The local Republican wave carried over into the federal races as well. Local voters favored Torrey Westrom over Collin Peterson, the long-time incumbent DFLer in the U.S. House 7th District, by a margin of 11 percent. District-wide, Peterson prevailed with 54 percent of the vote.
And for U.S. Senate, Republican Mike McFadden carried the county with 51 percent of the vote but incumbent Democrat Al Franken won another term with 53 percent.
Voter turnout in Douglas County was 55 percent, 20th out of the 87 counties in the state.

5. BAD CRASHES

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Several lives came to an abrupt end because of motor vehicle crashes in 2014.
There were four fatal crashes in Douglas County during the year, including a rollover on Interstate 94 on January 3; a double-fatality when a motorcycle crashed near the fairgrounds on May 17; a two-vehicle crash involving a medical transport van at the intersection of County Road 8 and Moe Hall Road near Garfield on June 10; and a rollover south of Busch Road between Alexandria and Forada on October 17.

Al Edenloff is the editor of the twice-weekly Echo Press. He started his journalism career when he was in 10th grade, writing football and basketball stories for the Parkers Prairie Independent.
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