MICHIGAN CITY — La Porte County experienced both joyous moments and tragedies in 2017, and a whole spectrum of experiences ranging between the two. And as we do every year, The News-Dispatch has compiled a list of the top 10 stories to have made an impact on our county this year – good, bad or otherwise.
1. MCHS Football reaches semi-state, makes history
The Michigan City High School Wolves made history in 2017 by becoming the first football team in the school’s 22-year history to win a regional championship and advance to the IHSAA Class 5A semi-state contest on Nov. 17.
Although it was there that their season came to an end in a 21-14 loss to the Kokomo High School WildKats, the Wolves finished their season with much to celebrate:
City beat their cross-conference rival, the La Porte Slicers, in a 38-0 shutout at Ames Field to win the sectional title on Nov. 3. The last time any Michigan City team won a football sectional was in 1984, when Ken Bye was head coach for the Elston High School Red Devils. (Bye returned to the coaching staff at Michigan City this season, working under second-year Head Coach Phil Mason.)
Senior Daelon Wren was the first Wolves’ running back to rush for as many as 369 yards in a game; and in that same game, matched the program record of six rushing touchdowns.
Senior Michael McCullough was City’s first quarterback to throw for six touchdowns in a game, a feat accomplished one week after Wren’s record.
And after the high school season ended, senior offensive lineman Braden Fiske signed an official letter of intent with Western Michigan University, turning down offers from Ball State University and Northern Illinois University in the process.
2. Fatal crashes along U.S. 20 spike in 2017
Twelve people have died on La Porte County’s stretch of U.S. 20 in 2017, for reasons ranging from drunk driving to inclement weather; but the Indiana Department of Transportation estimates the majority are a result of distracted driving.
To help address the problem, police presence has been increased along the highway, and state officials began the installation of centerline rumble strips more than a year earlier than originally planned.
3. Coolspring Fire’s Baby Hope is first ever to be left inside Safe Haven Baby Box
A newborn baby girl believed to be just one hour old was left inside the Safe Haven Baby Box at the Coolspring Township Volunteer Fire Department on Nov. 7. It marked the first time in the country’s history for one of the boxes to have been used as it was intended.
Wrapped in a bloody sweater with her umbilical cord still attached, Baby Hope, as the firefighters nicknamed her, was transported to Franciscan Health Michigan City, where she was determined to have been stable and in good health.
Baby Hope reportedly had been placed with her adoptive family sometime before Christmas.
Only two such anonymous, electronically-monitored, temperature-controlled Safe Haven Baby Boxes exist in the U.S. The other is in Woodburn, Indiana.
4. Michigan City, La Porte County approve funding for double track
Both the Michigan City Common Council and La Porte County Commissioners voted this year to approve funding for NICTD’s double-track South Shore Line project, with Michigan City pledging more than $12 million and the county pledging more than $6 million.
St. Joseph, Lake and Porter counties in Indiana also will provide matching funds of $18.1 million each toward the project, which is expected to cut the commute from Michigan City to Chicago to 67 minutes, down from 1 hour and 40 minutes.
The State of Indiana has pledged $72.5 million as well. Federal funds have yet to be approved by Congress, but supporters of the initiative are hopeful for a match of the combined pledges at the state and county levels.
The $290-million double-track project is expected to spend $120 million in Michigan City. In addition to the job opportunities that spending is expected to create, as well as the shortened commute times, benefits of the initiative will include a boost in local tax revenue and the building of a state-of-the-art station, ADA-compliant elevated platform, and $10-million parking structure in Michigan City’s downtown.
Officials hope to begin acquiring property for the project in 2018, and to complete construction by the end of 2020.
5. As drug overdoses increase, the county’s battle against opioids continues
At least 24 deaths attributed to drug overdose had been recorded in 2017 by early December, according to La Porte County Coroner Bob Cutler, a significant increase from the 14 drug-related deaths recorded in 2016.
The number of ambulance calls in suspected cases of overdose also increased from 106 in all of 2016 to 142 in 2017 with four weeks remaining. And La Porte County Emergency Medical Services administered 215 doses of anti-opiate drug Narcan last year, and 300 this year.
While EMS said their budget has not been significantly affected by the spike in overdoses, the coroner’s office has had to acquire additional funding from the county in order to pay for the increase in autopsies and toxicology reports.
Various La Porte County agencies continue to collaborate to address the opioid crisis through comprehensive studies, prevention plans and treatment programs.
6. Former prosecutor suspended for misconduct
Former La Porte County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Robert C. Neary was suspended from practicing law for four years in an Indiana Supreme Court decision delivered in November. Neary is accused of misconduct in two local homicide cases that have gone before the state’s top court: State of Indiana v. Brian Jordan Taylor and State of Indiana v. John B. Larkin.
In the Taylor case, a young man is accused of murdering his girlfriend in 2014. Neary and several Michigan City Police officers reportedly eavesdropped on a private conversation between Taylor and his defense attorney via a live audio feed inside the police station, leading them to the location of the alleged murder weapon. The supreme court ordered a local trial court to analyze each piece of evidence in the case in order to determine which has been tainted and which may be admissible during trial.
Larkin was charged with voluntary manslaughter after his wife’s shooting death in 2012. A special judge dismissed the case against him last year after Larkin’s attorneys presented evidence that Neary had ordered a transcript of a recorded, privileged conversation between Larkin and his defense attorneys, among other misconduct on behalf of law enforcement officers. The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision earlier this year; and the state escalated the case to the supreme court, which heard oral arguments on Dec. 19 before deciding to take on the matter.
7. 5-year-old MC girl killed in hit-and-run
Five-year-old Delaney Klewer was struck by a vehicle and killed in the 300 block of Broadway Street – less than a block from her home – as she was crossing the street to retrieve her shoes from Water Tower Park on July 18. The girl had been walking with her 8-year-old sister, Sara, who was unharmed by the SUV, which fled the scene.
Two days later, Marcus Scully, a 35-year-old Michigan City man, turned himself in to police; and was charged with leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death, a Level 5 felony. Shortly thereafter, he posted a $15,000 cash bond, and was released from the La Porte County Jail.
Scully’s jury trial in the case is scheduled to begin on March 19, with a final pre-trial conference set for Feb. 15.
8. Child mauled by 140-pound dog survives attack
A 12-year-old girl continues her recovery after she was mauled by a 140-pound bull mastiff at Dunewood Trailer Park on Nov. 10.
Winter Morgan was airlifted to Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, where she underwent five surgeries after the attack. Her mother said she may require another skin graft as a result of having been bitten on nearly every part of her body, save for her face and left leg.
Michigan City Police Officer Scott Combs was the first to respond to the scene. He opted not to shoot the dog out of fear of harming Winter, but wrestled with the animal until the girl could get to safety.
Michigan City Police Chief Mark Swistek awarded both Combs and Winter for their “heroism” at City Hall in early December; and the Michigan City Common Council read a resolution in Combs’ honor later in the month.
Police have not named the owner of the bull mastiff, as their criminal investigation into the matter is ongoing. The dog was euthanized days after the incident.
9. City council president makes controversial remarks about sexual assault, resigns office
Chris Schwanke, the former 6th Ward councilman and Michigan City Common Council President, resigned from office on Dec. 1 amid community backlash over his having posted several items on Facebook that appeared to mock and minimize the claims of sexual assault victims.
When contacted by The News-Dispatch to allow him a means to clarify his online comments, Schwanke said, “All these allegations coming forth all at one time, all against men … I suppose it’s all important … but there are so many things we’re dealing with like poverty, kids that can’t eat, and racism and other things that are so much more important. Most of it is just someone made a comment, and a woman or someone takes it to the extreme.”
The day after the story printed, Schwanke posted on Facebook to say the newspaper took his comments out of context. He also announced his resignation: “I also have tendered my resignation on the city council. Not because of this sexual harassment story by The New Dispatch (sic) but I have been exploring new opportunities in another state for over two months and have decided to relocate for personal and business opportunities. This has been a long process and a tough decision to make. I would like to thank the residents of the 6th ward that have allowed me to serve.”
10. Milo resigns as LP mayor, takes job in governor’s administration
Blair Milo stepped down as the mayor of La Porte in August to take on a new role as the state’s first-ever secretary of career connections and talent.
Gov. Eric Holcomb created the cabinet-level position by executive order, making Milo the chief executive officer of Indiana’s State Personnel Department. She will be responsible for connecting Hoosiers with employers, and filling the 1 million jobs expected to become available in Indiana over the next 10 years.
Specifically, Milo will collaborate with businesses, industries, trade groups, state agencies and public officials to identify employment needs and help workers take advantage of training opportunities for high-demand, high-wage positions. The secretary will work in partnership with Indiana colleges, universities and certificate and training providers to connect Hoosiers to high-demand jobs.
Mark Krentz was elected by caucus to fill the role of La Porte mayor, an office his father once held in the 1990s.