2019 News in Review

A roundup of the top news stories in Northwest Montana in 2019

By Beacon Staff
The Ranch for Kids Project entrance is seen on Indian Creek Road near Eureka. Beacon File Photo

Two Decades of Fighting Asbestos

Dr. Brad Black has run the nonprofit Center for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD) since its inception, and this year the pioneering clinician entered his third decade charting the alarming rates of asbestos-related lung disease.

A doctor in Libby since 1977, Black has been at the front lines of Libby’s asbestos fight, and despite all the fuss that’s been made over Libby in the last 20 years — despite the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2009 declaration of a public health emergency, the first such designation since the federal Superfund law passed in 1980; despite the more than $575 million spent on cleanup costs; and despite the well-documented asbestos contamination that’s sickened thousands and killed hundreds — Black is still waging an uphill battle.

“We keep on plugging because that’s all we can do,” Black said recently in a basement conference room at the CARD clinic. “When you have new patients coming through the door on a regular basis, your primary objective is to provide them with care. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

KRH Hires New CEO

The Kalispell Regional Healthcare Board of Trustees selected a North Dakota hospital executive and U.S. National Guard war veteran as the new president and chief executive officer of the hospital system.

Dr. Craig Lambrecht replaced Pamela Robertson, who left the position in November 2018. General Counsel William Gibson and interim Chief Financial Officer Tracey Talley had been fulfilling president and CEO duties during the hospital’s search for a permanent replacement.

Lambrecht took over at a tumultuous period for KRH, which the previous September agreed to pay $24 million to settle a whistleblower lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice and entered a mandatory compliance program that imposed new duties on staff to monitor, report and certify that its financial arrangements with physicians meet federal requirements surrounding health care programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Bullock Runs for President

In May, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock began making the case that he was the best bet to beat President Donald Trump because he was the only Democratic candidate to win in a state that Trump won in 2016.

Bullock launched his candidacy in earnest despite getting a late start, joining nearly two dozen other Democratic candidates competing for attention and campaign donations.

The two-term governor and former state attorney general ended his Democratic presidential campaign in December, saying it’s become clear that he won’t have a shot at being his party’s nominee.

“While there were many obstacles we could not have anticipated when entering this race, it has become clear that in this moment, I won’t be able to break through to the top tier of this still-crowded field of candidates,” Bullock said.

The governor said he ran to win back places Democrats have lost and end the influence of “dark money” in politics. Those concerns have not changed, he said, but he leaves the race “filled with gratitude and optimism, inspired and energized by the good people I’ve had the privilege of meeting over the course of the campaign.”

However, the 53-year-old struggled to raise money and register in the polls, managing to meet qualification thresholds for only one Democratic National Committee debate in July.

Under the Big Sky Debuts in Whitefish

The inaugural Under The Big Sky Music and Arts festival wrapped up in Whitefish on July 14 with a soulful performance by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, capping off a weekend that set a new bar for the Flathead Valley’s live music standards.

Event organizer Johnny Shockey prepared for months to craft an epic music festival at his Big Mountain Ranch in Whitefish, where other headliners included Band of Horses, Jenny Lewis, Dwight Yoakam, ZZ Ward, Shooter Jennings, and Lucius.

The inaugural event was a rousing success that drew 15,000 attendees each day of the festival, and organizers recently announced the lineup for its second edition, scheduled on July 18-19, 2020.

Festival organizers recently released the 2020 performer list and other details, with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit headlining the lineup. The second headliner is Tyler Childers, with other national names appearing on the ticket, such as Emmylou Harris, The Head and the Heart, Colter Wall, Brothers Osborne, Shovels & Rope, Billy Strings, Jade Bird and Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real.

Grizzly Deaths

For the second year in a row grizzly bear mortalities reached a record high in the region of Northwest Montana that surrounds Glacier National Park as the population of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grows, driving bears into more frequent conflict with people.

Since 2018, wildlife officials have documented 102 mortalities in the NCDE and determined 84 were human-caused. In some cases, wildlife managers euthanize the bears after the animal becomes habituated to human food or kill livestock.

In other cases, bears are killed by vehicle traffic or trains.

This year, wildlife advocacy groups threatened to sue BNSF Railway for its role in train collisions killing grizzly bears, a species protected under the Endangered Species Act.

According to state and federal wildlife agencies, eight grizzly bears were killed in 2019 as the result of train collisions, the most in a single year on record.

Chronic Wasting Disease

This year marked the first detections of deadly chronic wasting disease — sometimes called “zombie deer disease” — in this corner of Montana as deer, elk and even moose began turning up positive for the degenerative illness.

Before 2019, the disease had never been detected west of the Continental Divide in Montana.

Clusters of at least 30 detections turned up in Libby, prompting Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials to change hunting regulations and establish the Libby CWD Management Zone, which encompasses roughly 10 miles around the detection sites. Within the management zone, the goal is to identify the prevalence and distribution of CWD.

CWD is a progressive, fatal disease affecting the nervous system of mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk and moose. It is part of a group of diseases called Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs). TSEs are caused by infectious, mis-folded prion proteins, which cause normal prion proteins throughout a healthy animal’s body to mis-fold, resulting in organ damage and eventual death.

Potter’s Field Ministries        

Potter’s Field Ministries and its affiliated chain of burger joints was forced to close amid allegations of abuse and labor violations.

Prior to the allegations, Potter’s Field was best known in the public sphere as the purveyor of Mudman Burgers, which had locations in Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Kalispell, as well as roving food trucks that were staffed by participants, or “interns,” in the IGNITE missionary program.

In July, many of those employees began airing grievances on a religious blog site reporting grueling 60-hour workweeks, low pay, and verbal and psychological abuse by the ministries’ founders, Mike and Pam Rozell.

As more reports flooded the website phoenixpreacher.com, it became a self-described nexus for “Potter’s Field Survivor Stories,” prompting Rob McCoy, senior pastor with Godspeak Calvary Church, to take over the ministries as chief executive officer and begin dissolving the nonprofit.

In a surprising change of course, the beleaguered ministries program in November announced it was reorganizing and will remain intact.

Ranch for Kids

State officials removed 27 children from a private alternative youth program in Rexford in July amid allegations of “egregious, chronic and persistent child abuse and neglect,” according to a statement from the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS).

Sheila Hogan, the department’s director, described instances of pervasive physical and psychological abuse at the Ranch for Kids, including reports of staff hitting, kicking, body slamming, and spitting on the children in their care.

Ranch for Kids bills itself as a respite care home that takes in adopted children from around the world — especially Russia — who are experiencing problems at home, often due to fetal alcohol-related issues.

According to department officials, allegations of abuse at the Ranch for Kids had escalated in frequency and severity leading up to the removal, and the process of removing the children was carefully staffed and carried out in such a way to ensure that they are in “a safe, trauma-informed place with needed care and proper nutrition.”

Ryan Lamb Murder Trial

A Kalispell man accused of stabbing his boyfriend to death pleaded guilty in December to negligent homicide after striking a plea deal that requires prosecutors to dismiss the original charge of deliberate homicide.

Ryan Lamb, 35, entered his guilty plea by way of an Alford Plea, a legal nuance wherein a criminal defendant stops short of admitting guilt but acknowledges prosecutors have mounted enough evidence to obtain a conviction at trial.

In exchange for the plea, prosecutors will ask Judge Robert Allison to impose a sentence of 10 years in the Montana State Prison with no time suspended and no parole restrictions.

Lamb’s change of plea draws the dramatic case one step closer to a conclusion and comes on the heels of a lengthy trial that ended with a hung jury and prompted a circuitous legal battle that went all the way to the Montana Supreme Court.

In June, Lamb stood trial on a charge of deliberate homicide for fatally stabbing his then-boyfriend Ryan Nixon during a sexual act in 2018. After nine days of testimony and 13 hours of deliberation, the jury was unable to reach a verdict.

Sperry Chalet Rebuild Complete

With a few lingering chores to complete this coming spring, crews charged with reconstructing the fire-ravaged Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park have capped off their work in the high-alpine country, with reservations for the summer season set to begin in January.

Sperry Chalet was lost on Aug. 31, 2017 after the 17,000-acre Sprague Fire doubled in size in a matter of hours, destroying its fir-and-lodgepole framework and leaving behind only the native-rock shell hewed from a nearby mountain quarry by Italian stone masons more than a century ago.

Former Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke announced an ambitious goal to rebuild the historic wilderness chalet as quickly as possible, and that same fall Glacier employees conducted emergency stabilization work to ensure that the remaining stonewalls would survive the winter.

The first phase of construction took place in 2018 during a $4 million stabilization effort.

This year, the second phase of the Sperry rebuild got underway after the National Park Service awarded a $4.73 million contract, which, like the initial phase, went to Dick Anderson Construction of Great Falls.

Body of Slain Child Found Dead After Parents’ Murder-Suicide

Authorities from multiple jurisdictions spent a week searching for a 2-year-old boy only for his body to turn up Aug. 1 near a remote campsite in Northwest Montana. The child was identified as Aiden Salcido, the son of an Oregon couple found dead in their car on July 24 following a police chase south of Whitefish.

Authorities determined the boy died from a gunshot wound to the head.

The heartbreaking discovery concluded a weeklong search for the missing boy, whose parents, Daniel Salcido, 21, and Hannah Janiak, 24, died in an apparent murder-suicide on July 24 following a brief police chase on U.S. Highway 93 between Kalispell and Whitefish. Their 2-year-old son was not present in the car. On July 26, law enforcement in Montana and Oregon, where the three people lived, asked the public’s help in finding the missing young boy.

That same day, authorities received a tip that the green GMC Jimmy SUV involved in the murder-suicide had recently been spotted in the West Fisher Creek area. On July 27, detectives from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and the Medford Police Department from Oregon, where the family lived, as well as a canine team from David Thompson Search and Rescue, searched an abandoned campsite in the area. Late in the day, a toddler’s body was discovered a short distance from the campsite.

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