News & Features

A Decade of Stories

A sampling of stories from the last 10 years that the Beacon counts among its favorite and most important

2007

‘You Wonder Where Jen Would Be Now,’ Oct. 3

Jennifer Servo, a Columbia Falls native and University of Montana graduate, was two months into her first television reporting job out of college when she was found bludgeoned and strangled to death in her Abilene, Texas apartment on Sept. 16, 2002. Five years later, the murder remained unsolved, and still does to this day.

In this cover story, friends and family lamented a life so full of potential abruptly cut short, while sharing memories of Servo, who they say distinguished herself from peers with bubbly enthusiasm and unyielding ambition. »»» READ MORE

Battle Over Chopper Safety Hindered Firefighting, Nov. 14

Firefighting operations in Montana during the 2006 and 2007 wildfire seasons were seriously disrupted by multiple helicopter safety incidents — including a “life-threatening” one involving the state’s chief pilot — and a bitter struggle among state fire managers over whether and how to address them, according to internal government documents obtained by the Beacon.

The problems, inflamed by interpersonal conflicts and professional threats, escalated to the point that some fire crews were ordered off aircrafts due to safety concerns. Interviews, emails and documents described a culture of fear and paranoia in state government, with employees hesitant to speak up out of fear of losing their jobs. »»» READ MORE

2008

‘I Think We’ve Talked to the Killer,’ May 14

When Darlene Wilcock was found strangled to death on April 17, 2003 in a Motel 6 room in Kalispell, local authorities encountered a murder mystery so perplexing that FBI investigators told Police Chief Roger Nasset the case involved the “most convoluted and strangest circumstances in any homicide they’ve ever seen.” Evidence was compelling for two primary persons of interest, although their alibis were equally as strong, leaving investigators stumped and reluctant to bring charges against either.

“I think we’ve done everything humanly possible and I think we’ve talked to the killer,” Nasset said. “But we just have to have that last piece of evidence to make it stick.” »»» READ MORE

Democrats’ Closing Arguments, May 28

With the June primary election nearing, Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama granted the Beacon exclusive interviews. Speaking by phone, Clinton and Obama answered questions about the Second Amendment, domestic energy production, wilderness designation, and Malmstrom Air Force Base. »»» READ MORE

2009

Taking Pride in Progress, June 17

A decade earlier, when Kalispell hosted a Pride event to celebrate and honor Montana’s LGBT community, about 30 people came. Now, for the 2008 event, organizer Dee Boyce was expecting a crowd of several hundred, which she saw as a sign of progress in furthering LGBT rights and educating the public in Montana.

This cover story delved into both the challenges and advances of the LGBT community in a conservative state, exploring the ways in which historical intolerance has impacted a modern conversation that’s gradually making more room for tolerance. »»» READ MORE

Three-Part Homelessness Series, Sept. 16, 23, 30

The Sept. 16 story “Finding Montana’s Invisible Youth” kicked off this series on homelessness in Montana, which received national attention in outlets such as the Huffington Post. The opening article focused on the legions of homeless or precariously sheltered youths across the Flathead and state.

“The Rapid Spread of Rural Homelessness” detailed what a Housing and Urban Development representative called “an alarming increase in homelessness in Montana,” disproportionately fueled by working families.

The series’ final installment, “For Veterans, Shelter from the Streets” on Sept. 30, explored the persistent problem of homeless veterans in a state with the second most per-capita veterans in the country.

»»» READ PART ONE

»»» READ PART TWO

»»» READ PART THREE

2010

On Fatal Anniversary, a Drinking Culture Laid Bare, March 24

Early in the morning of March 23, 2009, a man who had consumed 13 alcoholic beverages at a Bigfork bowling alley crashed his Volkswagen head-on into a Montana Highway Patrol cruiser, killing himself instantly. Trooper Michael Haynes died four days later.

A year later, families and friends of the two dead men still struggled with the accident’s aftermath, sorting through the harsh realities of Montana’s deeply engrained drinking culture and lax drunken driving laws. Haynes’ widow, Tawny, emerged as a strong voice in a sorely needed public discussion about the state’s relationship with alcohol, which too often seeps onto our roadways. »»» READ MORE

Backlash as Holocaust Skeptic Begins Showing Films at Library, April 7

When Karl Gharst, a Holocaust denier, aired a film titled “The Holocaust Debate” at Flathead County Library’s Kalispell branch, a crowd gathered on the sidewalk outside to protest the movie. A month later, when Gharst showed another film, “Epic: The Story of the Waffen SS,” the protesters once again turned out in large numbers.

This article was the first of several to explore the dynamics of community consolidation in the face of unwelcomed presences, interviewing both protesters and people sympathetic to the films, as well as national Holocaust experts. The stories received a public service honor from the Montana Newspaper Association. »»» READ MORE

Vacation Turns into Abduction, May 12

This cover story was the first to publicize a parental abduction case involving a Kalispell couple, which began when Byron and Chelsea Nelson took a vacation to the Bahamas. Although Byron returned home, Chelsea, who had family there, stayed with their 18-month-old son, Hunter. She never came back.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children agreed with a judge’s ruling that Byron had rightful custody and filed paperwork declaring a case of parental child abduction. The Beacon article helped spur national exposure, which culminated in autumn of 2010, 15 months after the abduction, in the return of Hunter to Byron. »»» READ MORE

2011

Ripped Off: How One Contractor Swindled Montana, Jan. 19

In November 2010, the Beacon published an article investigating claims by contractors and homeowners that a contractor named John Mulinski was orchestrating scams across Montana. The article also revealed a Montana Department of Labor and Industry investigation into Mulinski.

The Jan. 19 story interviewed additional homeowners and contractors claiming that Mulinski had swindled them out of untold thousands of dollars. An investigator with the state labor department called it the largest construction scam he had encountered. Mulinski was ultimately found guilty of three felony counts of wire fraud in U.S. District Court and sentenced in early 2012 to 57 months in prison and $138,000 in restitution. »»» READ MORE

The System Didn’t Work, June 22

On June 12, local resident David Burgert led Missoula County sheriff’s deputies on a car chase into the mountains outside of Lolo before firing a handgun at the officers and fleeing into the woods, setting off a manhunt that attracted national attention.

Authorities questioned how a man diagnosed with mental illness, and who had a criminal history that included serving eight years in federal prison on weapons charges, could have slipped through the cracks. Burgert, who has never been apprehended, had been freely moving around Montana on probation after his release from prison, apparently preparing for an armed confrontation by stashing ammunition, food, camping gear, and a car. »»» READ MORE

Misguided Brotherhood, Nov. 23

The Beacon obtained internal government documents that revealed state investigations into allegations of illegal and unethical activities by Lake County law enforcement officers across multiple agencies, including widespread poaching, falsifying documents, mishandling of crime scenes, witness tampering, and one deputy achieving ranks based on lies about his military experience. A state investigator said the sheriff’s office at the time fostered a “culture of corruption” and “misguided brotherhood” that encouraged the motto: “You can’t break the law, if you are the law.”

The article was the first in a long series about the allegations, which eventually led to legislative hearings, demands from state regulatory agencies to overhaul protocol at Lake County law departments, mandatory ethics training, suspensions and revocations of law enforcement certifications, and resignations. »»» READ MORE

2012

Still Searching for Noah, Aug. 8

In autumn 2010, Noah Pippin walked alone into the million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness for the first time. He was wearing army fatigues, standard military boots and a camouflage boonie hat, remnants of three tours as a Marine in Iraq. He was carrying a backpack, a GPS, a plastic milk jug, and a .38 revolver.

Two years later, Pippin’s disappearance remained unsolved. In a cover story detailing the mystery, the Beacon spoke with family members who were seeking closure into the disappearance of the 30-year-old veteran from northern Michigan. Following the story, a search party of border agents, search and rescue officials, a sheriff’s deputy and volunteers embarked into the wilderness. Within weeks, Pippin’s remains were discovered in the Burnt Creek area. »»» READ MORE

A Nation Divided, Sept. 12

Amid allegations of corruption and strong-arm politics, Blackfeet tribal members took to the streets in protest. Leading up to the protests, five elected councilors on the nine-member Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and more than two-dozen tribal employees had been suspended, plunging governance of the Blackfeet Nation into disarray and fueling deep divisions on the reservation. »»» READ MORE

2013

‘Glencore Has Been Playing Us,’ March 20

Four years after Glencore closed the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company, community members, local officials and Montana’s U.S. senators were losing faith in the company’s claims of trying to reopen the plant. In a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus signaled a shift from negotiating a power agreement with Glencore and the Bonneville Power Administration to instead seeking an environmental examination of the property to determine its Superfund eligibility.

Three years later, on Sept. 9, 2016, the EPA added CFAC to the Superfund program’s National Priorities List. »»» READ MORE

The Land of Oz, Dec. 25

The Beacon sent a reporter and photographer to Colorado to shadow Brock Osweiler, the former Flathead High School star quarterback who was then a 23-year-old backup for the Denver Broncos behind Peyton Manning. The story provided a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the routine of a rare Montana athlete to make it to the professional level, with interviews from fellow players and coaches. »»» READ MORE

2014

‘It Changed Everything for Us,’ Jan. 29

This cover story sketched a deeply detailed narrative of a Jan. 21, 1984 tragedy in which a bus carrying the Whitefish High School wrestling team crashed and killed nine people. It was the deadliest highway accident in Montana history.

On the 30th anniversary of the crash, survivors recounted the night’s events and the aftermath, still mourning the lost lives three decades later. Travis Brousseau, a freshman on the wrestling team at the time, said, “I still have nightmares about it.”

“In Whitefish, there’s a generation of people who can remember every detail of the moment they heard about the wrestling team’s bus crash in 1984,” Whitefish Middle School teacher Scot Ferda said. »»» READ MORE

The Business of Booze, Oct. 15

Montana’s complicated alcohol laws are a perennial source of contention and debate. It’s become a hot-button topic in Kalispell, where licenses limited through a quota system can demand upwards of $700,000. As city and business leaders try to revitalize downtown, the challenge of bringing restaurants into the core area is increasingly worrisome due to the financial burden of acquiring a license. Critics of the quota system say it deprives cities like Kalispell from expanding the lineup of restaurants. Casinos are more often able to afford to pay the high cost of a liquor license because of its gaming revenues, and many cities have seen their allotted licenses gobbled up by casinos instead of dining establishments. »»» READ MORE

2015

Who’s Pulling the Strings?, Feb. 25

As out-of-state interest groups mounted a growing front around the 2015 Montana Legislature, both on the ground and within the walls of the statehouse, outside influence was playing into state politics at an unprecedented rate. This cover story broke down the main players, led by Americans for Prosperity, a national conservative organization founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, while outlining the implications for Montana politics. »»» READ MORE

Shadow of a Doubt, July 29

Prior to having his conviction overturned in December 2015, Richard Raugust served more than 18 years in prison for the murder of his best friend, maintaining his innocence in the cold-blooded crime along the way.

Raugust was released from prison in December 2015 following a decision by Sanders County District Judge James Wheelis, who ruled that evidence withheld in the case constituted a violation of due process, supported the defendant’s alibi and warranted a new trial.

When the state of Montana dropped its bid challenging a judge’s order that overturned the man’s deliberate homicide conviction and life sentence, Raugust pledged to “salvage what’s left of my life.” »»» READ MORE

Falling Through the Cracks, Sept. 23

This cover story shined a light on a complicated crisis plaguing Montana’s Child and Family Services Division (CFSD), which was struggling with high turnover rates, low employee morale, service shortages and other problems that threatened the safety and protection of children in Montana. In Kalispell, the CFSD office had seen 12 of its 15 positions turn over that year alone. Increasing outcry and scrutiny, including public protests and letters from child welfare officials, led Gov. Steve Bullock to announce a new initiative aimed at protecting kids. »»» READ MORE

2016

Welling Concerns, Jan. 13

Flathead County health officials began scrambling to notify the public about potentially dangerous levels of radioactive elements in private water wells west of Kalispell when the Beacon published an article drawing attention to the issue in January 2016.

The Beacon’s investigation revealed that hundreds of drinking water samples tested in the area exceeded federal standards for gross alpha radioactivity, including uranium and radon, potentially exposing area residents to unsafe levels of contaminants.

In particular, the radioactive elements, which occur naturally, seemed to be present in private water wells in communities in and around Kila. »»» READ MORE

The Complicated Quest to Save the Grizzly, May 4

When Chris Servheen began his career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1981, grizzly bears were on the brink of extinction. As the nation’s first and only grizzly bear recovery coordinator, Servheen helped save the species. When he retired in spring 2016, grizzlies were once again roaming the landscape, particularly in Northwest Montana, home to the largest population of bears in the Lower 48. His parting work involved a proposal to remove the grizzlies from the Endangered Species List, a proposal that is awaiting a decision from the Trump administration. In the profile of Servheen, the Beacon looked at his contentious and monumental career, which involved death threats and unprecedented management strategies. »»» READ MORE

Under Siege, Dec. 7

The Nov. 8 discovery of destructive mussel larvae in Tiber and Canyon ferry reservoirs marked the first time the invasive species have been detected in Montana waters. As state officials, stakeholders and independent research institutions deploy resources to combat an aquatic enemy at the gates, the future remains uncertain. An infestation of zebra or quagga mussels could spell the beginning of the end for Montana’s most pristine watersheds, holding the potential to topple underwater food webs that prop up prized aquatic species while wreaking untold havoc on its infrastructure and recreation economy. »»» READ MORE

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