2016 Stories of the Year

It was a long time coming, but the cleanup of Lake Mitchell finally took a step forward in 2016. Following decades of algal blooms and complaints at Mitchell's 670-acre lake, Mayor Jerry Toomey, the Lake Mitchell Advisory Committee and the Mitche...

The clean up efforts to rid Lake Mitchell of its algae problem are the Daily Republic's top story of 2016. (Republic file photo) Green algae flows Wednesday afternoon along the western bank of Lake Mitchell, north of the amphitheater.
The clean up efforts to rid Lake Mitchell of its algae problem are the Daily Republic's top story of 2016. (Republic file photo) Green algae flows Wednesday afternoon along the western bank of Lake Mitchell, north of the amphitheater.

It was a long time coming, but the cleanup of Lake Mitchell finally took a step forward in 2016.

Following decades of algal blooms and complaints at Mitchell's 670-acre lake, Mayor Jerry Toomey, the Lake Mitchell Advisory Committee and the Mitchell City Council approved the first step toward what could ultimately become a multi-million dollar lake restoration project.

After more than a year of discussions and careful consideration from the lake committee, the City Council approved a $73,725 preliminary study to improve the water quality at the 88-year-old manmade lake. The plan from Omaha-based Fyra Engineering was approved in October by a 6-2 vote, and will define the problem areas within Lake Mitchell, develop a nutrient mass balance, determine pollutant loads and initiate a community-based planning process.

While the project finally took a step forward, the plan didn't get approved without some controversy and opposition.

Supporters of the restoration hailed the project as a method to finally take action to clean up one of Mitchell's largest assets. But opponents skewered the project, claiming it's yet another in a long line of studies to determine what's wrong with Lake Mitchell.


Others questioned who should be blamed for Lake Mitchell turning green with algae, the landowners along the creek that feeds into the lake, those with lakeside property or both.

With the initial study approved and plans for a possible restoration hanging in the balance, the city took another step toward restoration in December by naming possible members of the two committees that will be tasked with guiding Lake Mitchell toward recovery from its current state as an odorous, green lake to an appealing asset to the community.

And with 86 years since the first reported unsanitary conditions at Lake Mitchell, the city could finally be on track toward solving the lake's problems.

The progress to restore Lake Mitchell was voted the top local or region story by the newsroom staff at The Daily Republic.

The following are the other top 10 region and local stories of 2016 as voted by the newsroom.

2. Pipeline leak dumps 17K gallons of oil on Freeman

Between talk to construct the Keystone XL Pipeline dying down and protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline ramping up, South Dakota faced some pipeline trouble of its own.

On April 2, TransCanada's Keystone Pipeline leaked approximately 16,800 gallons of oil near Freeman, forcing nearly 100 workers to remove 10,000 tons of soil from the spill site.


Following the leak, a cleanup crew remained at the site into the summer months, relocating spoiled soil to a landfill in Minnesota.

The spill occurred on the rural Freeman property of Loren Schultz, and the leak was caused by an anomaly in a weld at the bottom of the pipeline.

3. Former police chief convicted, sentenced for murder

Russell Bertram, a former Colome police officer and Harrisburg police chief, was convicted in 2016 of murdering his pregnant fiancee near Gregory.

Bertram, of Sioux Falls, was later sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Leonila Stickney, which occurred in 2009.

During a jury trial held in September, details surrounding Stickney's shooting death were revealed, and prosecutors argued Bertram shot and killed Stickney while on a hunting trip because another man impregnated his fiancee.

Six years after Stickney's death, a jury sentenced Bertram to life in prison without the possibility for parole for the first-degree murder conviction.


4. Palace murals remain the same

In a break from tradition, Mitchell Mayor Jerry Toomey and other city staff decided against replacing the Corn Palace's signature corn murals in 2016.

The murals, which are made of corn and are typically replaced annually, were left up as a cost-saving measure following a $4.7 million facelift of the city's most well-known attraction.

The Palace has operated at an annual deficit of more than $300,000 from 2011 to 2015, and with construction initially expected to begin on neighboring Sixth Avenue for a park project, Toomey said the timing was right to try leaving the murals up for two consecutive tourist seasons.

Construction, however, would be sparse on Sixth Avenue, and opponents questioned the durability of the corn murals over a two-year period.

In December, the "Rock of Ages" themed murals were still lining the west and south exterior walls of the Corn Palace, more than one year since they were installed.

5. Westerhuis estate gets new owner, former Mid-Central employees face charges

One year after Scott Westerhuis allegedly murdered his wife and four children and set his home ablaze before killing himself, a local organization purchased the property in a quest to make the most of a tragic event that shook the Charles Mix County town.

In September, the Platte Area Ministerial Association purchased the Westerhuis estate for $370,000 to bring happiness back to the 40-acre plot of land where the four Westerhuis children once played. The Ministerial Association said it will transition the property into a church retreat camp and summer youth ministry.

While the community of Platte attempted to heal from the 2015 tragedy, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley announced two former Mid-Central Educational Cooperative employees and a former GEAR UP program administrator would face criminal charges. The trio are believed by authorities to have worked alongside Westerhuis as he allegedly stole funds from the co-op.

Dan Guericke, former Mid-Central director, and Stacy Phelps, the former GEAR UP administrator, were charged with falsification of evidence and Stephanie Hubers, a Mid-Central employee, was charged with multiple counts of grand theft.

Trial dates for the three linked to the Mid-Central embezzlement have been tentatively set for June 2017.

6. Kernel football breaks 45-year title drought

In a 41-6 victory over the Harrisburg Tigers in November, the Mitchell High School football team took home the Class 11AA title.

Powered in part by stellar offensive line play and star running back Spencer Neugebauer, Coach Kent VanOverschelde's Kernel squad overcame a week one loss to close out the season with 11 straight wins. The Kernels trounced Harrisburg in the title game mere months after losing to the same team in August.

Two days after winning the title, the Kernel student-athletes were welcomed home by a large crowd at the Corn Palace in honor of their victory.

The Kernels' season was also marked by a moment to "cherish," as VanOverschelde put it, when Mitchell High School senior and homecoming king Tayler Reichelt scored on a 58-yard touchdown run against Sturgis.

Reichelt, a mainstay of the Kernel sidelines who was always looking for a few moments on the field, was able to race up the field for his first touchdown. Reichelt was born with Down syndrome, but coaches and players spoke highly of the positive presence he brought to the team throughout his tenure as a Kernel football player.

7. Woonsocket man charged with murder

On Aug. 31, Woonsocket was filled with law enforcement personnel following the death of 26-year-old Jennifer Gibson.

On the same day, 33-year-old Matthew Novak was arrested for his alleged role in Gibson's death from a stab wound to the neck. Novak awaits a trial and faces charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter.

The alleged homicide is also believed to be the first in Sanborn County since 1972, when Larry Gene Faller shot and killed Volney and Pearl Warner in their Woonsocket home.

8. Mitchell educator wins national award

Twenty-three years after founding Mitchell's Second Chance High School, Shane Thill was named the National Life Group's LifeChanger of the Year.

Thill, the director of the Second Chance High School and assistant principal at Mitchell High School, was selected from a pool of 600 teachers, administrators and school district employees from across the nation to take home the prize of $10,000. Thill, who was nominated by Mitchell High and Second Chance High science teacher Julie Olson, received $5,000, and the additional $5,000 was given to the Second Chance High School.

9. Private donors raise more than $225K for Veterans Park

The spirit of giving spread like wildfire in Mitchell, with approximately $225,000 being donated to fund a new park at the corner of First Avenue and Main Street.

Backed by a team of dedicated volunteer fundraisers, the project to spruce up the historic downtown district has raked in cash donations, pledges and in-kind commitments. And with the heavy community support, one of the project's lead fundraisers, Chief of Public Safety Lyndon Overweg, said the city might not have to use the $35,000 it set aside for the project.

The Veterans Park project will include a water feature, trees, picnic tables and lighting fixtures.

10. Celebrated Mitchell basketball coach dies at 72

The city of Mitchell mourned the loss of longtime high school girls and boys basketball coach Gary Munsen, a White Lake native and 39-year Mitchell coach who died in January.

Hundreds gathered at the Corn Palace to celebrate Munsen's life, a life in which he guided 12 teams of student-athletes to title-winning seasons and won a record-setting 902 games in girls and boys basketball combined.

Honorable mentions: The Mitchell High School gymnastics team won its third consecutive state championship; The 155th Engineer Company, many of whom are from the Wagner area, returned from Kuwait, and the 153rd Engineer Battalion, many of whom are from Parkston, departed to Kuwait; The Avera Grasslands Health Campus opened following a multi-million dollar construction process; The Dakota Wesleyan University men's and women's basketball teams clinched postseason berths in the same season for the first time in school history; The Mitchell High School show choir was named Class AA grand champion in the first-ever state show choir championship; The Davison County Commission denied a permit to construct a 9- to 11-turbine wind farm west of Mitchell; The Alexandria Angels amateur baseball team went undefeated and won the Class B state amateur tournament.

What To Read Next
Throughout the county party election season, stretching from mid-November to the end of January, delegates have succeeded in changing the makeup of key county parties, like Minnehaha and Pennington.
Members Only
“In our industry there aren’t a lot of young people in it. I like the fact that there are a lot of young people in agriculture here,” he said of the Mitchell area.
Members Only
After the departure of longtime superintendent Marje Kaiser and the hiring of Dan Trefz, who recently resigned, advocates say the specialty school needs help from lawmakers to reach its past heights.
Over the past year, the city has been mulling over bringing a secondary water source to Mitchell – a move Mayor Bob Everson said is aimed at positioning the city to grow.