News in review

From the election to the Griz, the year's top stories



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Worst fire season in a century

Montana's 2012 wildfires burned more acreage than any year since 1910. According to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center, the state's 2,206 fires burned nearly 1.2 million acres and cost $113 million to suppress. The Ash Creek fire accounted for about 250,000 of those acres, or 391 square miles, devastating timber and grasslands and consuming 39 structures on and surrounding the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeastern Montana.

Closer to Missoula, the Sawtooth Fire west of Hamilton in the Bitterroot National Forest ignited on Aug. 30 and spread over 6,000 acres, leading to evacuation notices for some 400 homes and businesses. The smoke from the Sawtooth and other nearby fires in Montana and Idaho choked both the Bitterroot and Missoula valleys for more than a month. Between Aug. 21 and Oct. 1, the Missoula City-County Health Department issued unhealthy air-quality alerts 25 times.

Superfund for Frenchtown mill

This year the Environmental Protection Agency conducted an analysis of the contaminants left behind by a half-century of papermaking at the Frenchtown mill northwest of Missoula. It found a toxic soup of dioxins, furans, arsenic, chromium, lead, methylphenol and other chemicals in high enough concentrations that the agency asked the state for consent to add the 3,200-acre property along the Clark Fork River to the Superfund National Priorities List.

The Missoula Board of County Commissioners supported the listing. The commissioners are especially concerned about the site's 138 acres of sludge ponds and landfills located within the river's floodplain. "These areas are at risk of a catastrophic release by a large flood," they wrote in a letter to the Schweitzer administration in late November. Schweitzer responded by granting consent on Dec. 17.

A Superfund listing means the government can sue all prior landowners to pay for the cleanup, but figuring out who actually pays promises to be a complicated and drawn-out process. The current owner is the Illinois-based Green Investment Group, which, when it acquired the mill last year, absolved Smurfit-Stone (now owned by RockTenn) of all environmental liability.

The gay bashing that wasn't

Joseph Baken of Billings, 22, told police that he was celebrating his birthday on Aug. 5 at a downtown Missoula bar when, after inquiring about where he could find a gay club, he was lured outside and beaten up by three men.

Within 24 hours, the Facebook page Wipe Out Homophobia, with its more than 480,000 "likes," posted a picture of a clearly injured Baken. The post drew outrage from across the nation and, in Missoula, 560 people signed up to attend a pub crawl to support victims of homophobic violence.

But Baken made up the story. The Independent obtained a video showing how Baken sustained the injuries: doing a backflip off a Higgins Avenue curb and landing on his face. The video showed an uninjured Baken at 2:30 in the morningone hour after the time he told law enforcement that he had been assaulted. Before launching from the curb, a clearly intoxicated Baken said, "For Olympic gold!"

Two days after Baken reported the beating to police, he pleaded guilty in Missoula Municipal Court to misdemeanor filing of a false report. He received a suspended 180-day jail sentence and paid a $300 fine.

Contentious council debates

Another year, another series of spirited debates in Missoula City Council's chambers. In fact, with some issues, those spirited debates prompted outright confrontation.

After the EPA found a toxic soup of contaminants at the Frenchtown mill northwest of Missoula, the site was added to the Superfund National Priorities List. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • After the EPA found a toxic soup of contaminants at the Frenchtown mill northwest of Missoula, the site was added to the Superfund National Priorities List.

The biggest fights and the longest lasting discussions focused on how Missoula should grow. For instance, on Dec. 10, there was a tense moment between Missoula City councilmen Bob Jaffe and Jon Wilkins that came during a public hearing on whether to allow accessory dwelling units, or "granny flats," in Missoula's residential neighborhoods. Jaffe accused Wilkins of spreading misinformation about the issue stemming from, as Jaffe put it, "unbelievable ignorance" or "deception." Wilkins didn't take kindly to the accusation, especially since he wasn't present in council chambers at the time. "Don't do that to me again," Wilkins said. "You got it?"

"Are you threatening me, Jon?" Jaffe replied.

The exchange marked one of the year's livelier moments in council chambers, and seemed in line with a generally hostile debate that spilled into local opinion pages and Jaffe's weekly listserv.

The other thorny growth issue involved how the city should pay for sidewalks. For more than 100 years, the law has required homeowners to foot the bill for for sidewalk construction, with tabs at times topping $10,000. That changed in September when council successfully created a new cost-sharing mechanismdrawing funds from Missoula's roads district, an already established taxto ease the burden on property owners.

Another piece of legislation that will leave immediate and tangible effects on locals is the November passage of Missoula's cellphone ban. The ordinance now makes it illegal to use a hand-held device while driving or biking. When the law takes full effect early next year, chatty scofflaws will be fined $100. Subsequent violations will be even costlier.

Lake County cops in court

In late 2011, the Independent reported on wide-ranging allegations of misconduct involving several law enforcement officers in Lake County, allegations those officers repeatedly denied. Now the officers are defending themselves in federal court.

In February, five current and former officers in the Lake County Sheriff's Department filed suit alleging that four of their colleagues retaliated against them for bringing forward evidence of wrongdoing within the department, ranging from a deputy's lies about serving as a U.S. Marine to several officers' involvement in a poaching group known as the "Coyote Club."

The plaintiffs claim that the defendants—Sheriff Jay Doyle, Undersheriff Dan Yonkin, and officers Mike Sargeant and Dan Duryee—acted "in concert and with criminal purpose," violating the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. Depositions were completed this month, and a trial is expected to begin in March 2013.

Meanwhile, in April, the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council, or POST, a quasi-judicial board that polices the police, served certification revocation notices to Sargeant, Duryee and five other Lake County cops. Those cases are pending. They became more complicated in August when the POST Council placed POST Director Wayne Ternes, who led the investigations of the seven officers, on leave while he himself was investigated for what Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir, president of the Montana Association of Chiefs of Police, termed a "power grab."

Pippin found

Nearly two years to the day after Noah Pippin disappeared into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, search and rescue volunteers with the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Office found Pippin's remains near the Chinese Wall on Aug. 24. Authorities had long questioned whether Pippin, a former Marine with three tours in Iraq, had committed suicide in the backcountry. Sheriff Leo Dutton promptly dismissed the theory after reviewing the scene of Pippin's death. Pippin, it appears, got caught in a fall snowstorm while clambering across a scree slope. Dutton told the Indy in August that Pippin died from exposure.

The discovery put to rest a widely publicized mystery. Pippin's disappearance had prompted a string of media stories, from an Indy cover story in 2011 to an episode of Discovery Channel's "Disappeared" to an article in Outside Magazine last spring. In every instance, Pippin's parents held out hope that their son was still alive, and insisted that the search for him continue. The family gathered in Helena in late November for a ceremony honoring members of two separate search crews who had combed the Bob. There, they said that while grief over Noah's death is significant, they're relieved to finally have answers.

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