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OUR VIEW: GEAR UP conclusion leaves empty feeling

South Dakota's GEAR UP scandal has seemingly come to a conclusion.

Three people were indicted in 2016 in connection with stealing money from Mid-Central Educational cooperative in Platte. Two of them, Stephanie Hubers and Stacy Phelps, were found not guilty by juries this year. And the third, Dan Guericke, admitted to backdating a contract and was fined $1,000 by a judge Monday, with the conviction sealed to avoid limiting his future professional endeavors.

But with the court proceedings complete for now, the matter is defined by what remains unanswered.

An entire family is gone, including Scott Westerhuis, the former business manager of the cooperative, who allegedly killed his wife Nicole — the assistant business manager — and their four children before setting the family home ablaze and shooting himself.

He did so, authorities say, after the state informed Mid-Central it was losing a $4.3 million federal grant, money that was illegally being used to pay some employees of the cooperative a second salary.

The executive director of the cooperative at the time, Guericke was sentenced Monday for a Class 6 felony charge of falsification of evidence. He received a suspended sentence, meaning he will not spend any time in prison, if he abides by the orders of the court.

Attorney General Marty Jackley said Guericke never took any GEAR UP money for himself, and Jackley on Monday said Guericke was cooperative during the investigation.

While the justice system has run its course and we respect the work of the law, we can't help but feel remorse for the friends and family of the Westerhuises.

Six people died. Millions of dollars were stolen. A community was in shock. Yet, are there really any repercussions? Is there any justice?

Early on the morning of Sept. 17, 2015, firefighters were called to the scene of the Westerhuis estate to find a tragedy. Today, more than three years later, what's left?

Following multiple in-depth investigations and months of waiting for trials, we're left with an empty feeling.

And none of this changes the feeling of emptiness in Platte, where the loss of six members of the community continues to be felt at school, at church and at gatherings.

For more than three years, this story has unfolded with dozens of unanswered questions. And now, following all of the court cases and testimonies, we all are coming to the realization that it might have to be that way forever.

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