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Alleged Michigan City gas station robber also charged in Lake County

MICHIGAN CITY – A Michigan City man incarcerated since March 2019 in connection with a string of local gas station robberies has also been charged with a robbery in Lake County.

And the state has ruled 31-year-old Ian Ladwuane Rawls is now competent to stand trial.

According to the probable cause affidavit in the Lake County case, Hobart Police responded to the Family Express on Ridge Road (U.S. 6) after it was robbed around 4:30 a.m. on March 7.

Two women – a gas station attendant and a customer – told police they were robbed by a man in a black hooded sweatshirt, black facial covering, blue latex gloves and jeans with a distinctive pattern.

They said he displayed a gun and ushered them into the stockroom before fleeing the store.

The Lake County document states that among the items located in Rawls’ vehicle after his March 10 arrest in Michigan City were the jeans he could be seen wearing on surveillance video during the Hobart robbery.

Hobart Police also note that when he went on his alleged crime spree, he had been released from jail only days prior and was wearing an ankle monitor issued through La Porte County Corrections.

And although the monitor did not have the ability to track Rawls’ location, it determined he was on unauthorized leave from his residence during the time the Hobart robbery occurred.

Additionally, a special agent with the FBI reported that Rawls’ cell phone pinged at the cell phone tower near the Hobart gas at 4:36 a.m., 4:37 a.m. and 6:02 a.m. on March 7.

Rawls appeared in La Porte Superior Court 1 on Thursday for setting of a trial date for his La Porte County charges. His new trial is set to begin April 6, with a final pretrial conference on March 5.

He is accused of robbing three Michigan City gas stations and one in unincorporated La Porte County between March 9-10, and displaying a gun in at least two of the robberies.

All four La Porte County station attendants described the robber as a black male in his 30s, wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and jeans with distinctive detail on the pockets, and driving a green sedan with missing hubcaps.

Among the items reported stolen were cash, a cash box, cartons of cigarettes and boxes of cigars.

Michigan City Police arrested Rawls just minutes after the last robbery was reported on March 10 at the SAVE station at 1811 Franklin St. The La Porte County probable cause affidavit states that they found a BB gun, red bandana and bag filled with cigars in his 1997 Geo Prism, and $267 on his person.

He was arrested on initial charges of armed robbery as a Level 3 felony, resisting law enforcement as a Class A misdemeanor, and driving without ever receiving a license as a Class C misdemeanor.

However, as the La Porte County investigation continued, Rawls was charged with three additional counts of armed robbery as Level 3 felonies, and two counts of intimidation with a deadly weapon as Level 5 felonies.

The other robberies for which he is charged occurred at the the Speedway near the intersection of U.S. 20 and U.S. 35; the Family Express at 5822 Franklin St.; and the BP at 702 State Road 212.

He was placed in lockup at the La Porte County Jail on a $25,000 cash bond, and was scheduled for jury trial to begin on July 8.

But in June, two court-appointed psychologists deemed Rawls incompetent to stand trial, and he was sent to a state hospital for treatment.

Competency was reported “restored” to the local court in November.

However, while still in the custody of the Indiana Department of Mental Health, Rawls was charged in Lake County in September with the Family Express robbery on March 7.

There, he is charged with two counts of armed robbery and two counts of criminal confinement with a deadly weapon, all Level 3 felonies.

No court hearings are currently scheduled in his Lake County case, but Rawls continues to be held without bail at the La Porte County Jail for safe-keeping in that case.

Each of the eight Level 3 felonies Rawls faces between the two counties is punishable by 3-16 years in prison. The two Level 5 felonies carry sentences of 1-6 years apiece.

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Possible coronavirus case being monitored in NW Indiana

VALPARAISO — As health officials across the country ramp up efforts to detect and stop the spread of the novel coronavirus from China, a possible case is being monitored in Porter County.

“In conjunction with the Indiana State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, the Porter County Health Department has identified an individual traveling through Porter County as potentially infected with the novel coronavirus,” according to a statement from Dr. Maria Stamp of the Porter County Health Department.

“Final diagnosis awaits the results of laboratory tests to be performed by the CDC,” according to Stamp. “Out of an abundance of caution, the individual has been placed in isolation and is currently under active medical supervision.”

Officials would not confirm reports that the patient was visiting Porter County after a trip to China, and would not say where the patient was being treated.

The statement said in the interim, “all applicable protocols” have been implemented.

Letty Zepeda, Health Department administrator, stressed that it is not a confirmed case.

“We would like emphasis on the fact that this is not a confirmed case of novel coronavirus,” she said. “We have a person under investigation (PUI) that is currently in a medical facility and is getting the proper care required for someone experiencing flu-like symptoms.”

Zepeda said the patient “is doing well, does not have a fever, and is improving. The person is in isolation as a precautionary measure.”

The CDC has had the blood/lab work performed on the patient, she said, and is awaiting results.

“Turn-around time is approximately 24-36 hours,” she said, and once results are back, a further statement will be issued.

A spokeswoman for the state health agency referred specific questions to Porter County, adding, “ISDH works in tandem with local and federal partners on any investigation.”

The CDC reports the immediate health risk from novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) to the general public in the United States is considered low, according to Zepeda.

U.S. health officials this week said they are expanding screenings of international travelers and taking other precautions, but stressed that, for now, the risk to Americans is very low.

“At this point Americans should not worry for their own safety,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a press conference Tuesday.

China has confirmed more than 4,500 people with the respiratory illness, which in severe cases can cause pneumonia, with dozens more counted in other countries.

In the U.S., as of Wednesday, there have been five confirmed cases. A total of 165 people have been tested, with 68 of the tests negative and 92 pending, according to the CDC.

There have been confirmed cases in Illinois, California, Washington and Arizona. All five of those had traveled to the hardest-hit part of China – and CDC says there is no sign that they have spread the illness to anyone else.

Along with the U.S. can China, confirmed cases of novel coronavirus have been reported in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Australia, Cambodia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.

Azar called it “a very fast-moving, constantly changing situation.”

In the U.S., the CDC is beefing up checks of incoming travelers. It had been screening for illness among passengers arriving from the epicenter of China’s outbreak at five U.S. airports.

But people who’ve visited other parts of China still may be arriving, with stops in other places first. Now, CDC is sending extra staff to other “quarantine stations” to screen arrivals at 18 airports and at border crossings in El Paso, Texas, and San Diego.

The State Department has also chartered a plane to evacuate diplomats from the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan, the city where the outbreak started, and some other Americans.

Asked if those evacuees would be quarantined, Azar said there will be doctors on the flight to check all passengers so health officials can decide if additional steps are needed.

With an incubation period of two to 14 days, travelers may arrive showing no symptoms. But CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier said the screenings are an opportunity to educate travelers that if they start feeling sick – with a fever, cough or flu-like symptoms – after returning from an outbreak zone, they should contact their doctor.

That’s exactly what the first U.S. patients did.

Azar said he has directed $105 million to fight the outbreak. Among the next steps, the CDC developed a test for the virus and aims to make it usable by state health departments to speed diagnosis of suspected cases. Research also is under way to develop a vaccine or treatment.

Airport screenings were initially done in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta. That has been expanded to Anchorage, Alaska; Boston; Dallas; Detroit; El Paso, Texas; Honolulu; Houston, Miami, Minneapolis; Newark, New Jersey; Philadelphia; San Diego; Seattle; Washington, D.C. (Dulles); and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The Porter County Health Department said people can help prevent the spread of any respiratory infection, including coronavirus and flu, by following proper preventative measures.

“Coronavirus and influenza share many of the same symptoms, and can also be prevented by exercising many of the same precautions,” Zepeda said.

Those include:

Wash hands with soap for 20 seconds

Cover mouth/nose when sneezing, coughing

Sanitize surfaces that may be contaminated

Steer clear of others that may exhibit flu/cold like symptoms

If illness persists, contact your doctor for direction.

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La Porte County considers new restrictions on truck traffic

La PORTE — A proposed new traffic ordinance may establish more transparent rules of the road for commercial truckers using La Porte County roadways.

During its meeting earlier this month, the La Porte County Board of Commissioners held the first reading of a set of possible changes to the county’s existing commercial vehicle regulations.

The provisions are intended to expand and clarify rules for the use of semi trucks and other large vehicles on county roads by:

Adding language that explicitly restricts commercial vehicles from using county roads with signage that forbids it.

Granting the La Porte Highway Department additional explicit powers when issuing temporary operating permits to vehicles whose size and weight exceed state regulations for county roads. These restrictions include specifying which route trucks should use, limiting vehicle weight and number/frequency of trips, and only issuing a certain number of permits to lessen the impact on roads and bridges.

Giving the county the ability to fine companies whose drivers repeatedly violate restrictions.

Before conducting a second reading, the commissioners plan to hold a public workshop to review the proposed ordinance and allow for input and comments.

Attorney Laura Nirenberg of La Porte’s Friedman & Associates, and La Porte County Sheriff’s Deputy Ryan Elcock, who handles commercial vehicle enforcement, spent the past several months drafting the new set of regulations.

The two poured over existing ordinances in several municipalities, including Porter County, and a model law for Indiana counties, Nirenberg said.

“We tried to take the best provisions and practices from both and combined them for our county,” the attorney said.

Though the draft set of rules only took around three months to brew up, the issue of commercial vehicles’ misuse of county roads has been on officials’ radar for years, Elcock said.

Residents often lodge complaints with the Sheriff’s Office about semis and other large vehicles using local roadways to bypass construction detours or busy highways, the deputy said.

With county roads not being built to the same standard as state or U.S. highways, the heavy weight of these vehicles is capable of inflicting substantial damage, he said.

“In a nutshell, the goal of the new ordinance is to make sure truck traffic has a purpose to be on county roads other than for pure convenience for the driver,” Elcock said.

The new regulations are also intended to be easier to follow than existing county code, which is less detailed and precise than the lengthier set of proposed rules, he said.

“There was a lot of ambiguity,” Elcock said. “I don’t feel it was fair to drivers who wanted to operate within the laws of the county.”

The added language would also give La Porte County the ability to directly collect fines from drivers who violate the new provisions, the deputy said.

Currently, violators pay fines directly to the state, as the current laws rely on existing state statutes for enforcement, rather than specific local ones, Elcock said.

Nirenberg is looking forward to presenting the set of proposed changes at the upcoming workshop, and welcomes public input for suggested improvements, she said.

“I’m hoping everyone is happy with the ordinance. I believe it addresses concerns from both sides of the issue.”

The commissioners are expected to announce the date of the workshop during their next meeting on Feb. 5.

Former Michigan City councilman seeks county treasurer seat

MICHIGAN CITY — With the incumbent La Porte County treasurer not seeking re-election, a former Michigan City Common Council member hopes to take the position.

“It’s with great honor and pleasure that I announce my candidacy for La Porte County Treasurer,” Ron Hamilton said Wednesday.

“I’m a lifelong Democrat who has resided in La Porte County my entire life.”

Hamilton served for the past eight years (2011-19) as the 3rd Ward representative on the Common Council.

“During my tenure as city councilman, I have been voted on by my colleagues as the vice-president of the city council, as well as their Parliamentarian,” Hamilton said.

“I had the opportunity to be appointed by the mayor to the management oversight committee and executive committee for NICTD [Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District].

“I was also a part of the police and fire negotiating team, along with being the chair for redistricting electoral lines. I’m a strong believer in fiscal accountability, balanced budgets, and the need to prepare for the long term.”

The incumbent treasurer has announced she will not run for re-election to the seat.

“Lynne Spevak has been a great county treasurer and with her decision to run for La Porte County Auditor, we need someone who is a trusted and ethical leader, and I know that is something I can do,” Hamilton said.

“I am committed to being an active and engaged participant, and I will continue to work hard for you in the community.”

He said the role of the treasurer has two primary responsibilities: being the custodian of all county funds and collecting any delinquent taxes.

“I am committed to working with all citizens struggling with delinquent taxes and will explore every possible option to avoid a tax sale,” Hamilton said.

“I believe all citizens deserve to be treated with respect, dignity, and compassion. My education and background in city government will help me serve the citizens of La Porte County in a meaningful way, and provide a positive impact to the residents and taxpayers.”

Hamilton and his wife, Marisa, have three daughters – Amira, Mia, and Olivia. He attended South Central High School and Michigan City vocational school, graduating in 2003. He then attended Purdue University where he obtained a Bachelor of Science in Management, and Law and Commerce.

“I’m looking forward to working for you and providing positive changes within the treasurer’s office,” Hamilton said. “Please feel free to contact me or email anytime.”

He can be reached at 219-873-9273 or Hamilton 3ward@yahoo.com.