Gazette staff picks top local news stories of 2013

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Gazette staff
Monday, December 30, 2013

The local economic rebound, a grisly body burning case and the new Janesville city manager were among the top stories in local news for 2013 as voted on by Gazette staff:

Bill Olmsted/bolmsted@gazettextra.com
A crew clears trees from what will become a rail spur serving the new GOEX facility under construction along the south side of Hwy 14 just west of Kennedy Road.

No. 10: Local economy rebounds

The continued diversity of Rock County's economic rebound was on display as several area companies embarked on expansion projects in 2013.

GOEX broke ground on a $17 million manufacturing facility on Highway 14 near Newville Road that will keep a minimum of 130 employees on the local payroll.

United Alloy announced it would double the size of its plant at 4100 Kennedy Road and likely increase its workforce by 30 percent in response to a growing demand for the company's certified steel fuel tanks, frames and trailers.

In a complicated partnership with the city of Janesville, Seneca unveiled plans to expand its processing plant for the addition of new packaging lines and employees.

These companies are just three of many around the county that are embarking on expansion plans that economic development officials have said are diversifying and helping the local economy bounce back from a devastating national recession and the loss of the local automotive manufacturing sector.

“The diversity of companies in this community and this area is overlooked, taken for granted and underestimated,” Forward Janesville President John Beckord said earlier this month. “There are a lot of companies, whether they're headquartered here or have branch plants here, that have really carried the water when it comes to the recovery.”


No. 9: Teacher suspected of being drunk on field trip

A Janesville elementary school teacher resigned after she was suspected of being drunk at an end-of-the-year field trip.

No one was injured in the incident at River's Edge Bowl, officials said. The teacher, Maria Caya, was never charged with any crime.

Caya had worked for the school district for 14 years. She taught at Washington Elementary School, which sent about 120 fourth- and fifth-graders the bowling center the morning of June 6, school officials said.

Some time after the group arrived, colleagues noticed Caya behaving strangely. Caya was treated at the emergency department at Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center, when her blood alcohol level was measured at 0.27 percent, according to a police report.

No one saw Caya drink alcohol at the bowling alley, which doesn't serve alcohol during school events. Those interviewed agreed the children were well supervised.


No. 8: Unemployment decreases

The unemployment rate in Rock County—once as high as 13.9 percent in 2009—continued to decrease in 2013, further evidence the local economy is continuing to rebound.

In fact, the October rate of 6.9 percent was the lowest it's been since the fall of 2008.

The falling unemployment rate is a combination of new jobs being created with a declining labor force.

The local unemployment rate was in double digits for all of 2009 and the first eight months of 2010.

Since January of this year, it has steadily declined from 9.5 percent.

Among individual cities, Janesville's rate of 7.6 percent in October was the seventh highest in the state. Beloit had the second-highest rate at 9.6 percent.


No. 7: Fair attendance sparks discussion

The Rock County 4-H Fair set a single-day attendance record of 30,667 on opening day this year, mostly because of the appearance of the hit country group, Florida Georgia Line.

As a result, people reported waited up to two hours to enter the fairgrounds, the grandstands were packed to overflowing, as were the toilets.

Security was increased the next day for a sold-out Hunter Hayes concert.

The successful fair became part of a larger discussion about whether or not the fairground should move. This time, the site under consideration was in Evansville as part of a development by a new group, the Southern Wisconsin Agricultural Group (SWAG).

Dan Lassiter/dlassiter@gazettextra.com
Geese swim by a picnic table in water from the Rock River that had overflowed the banks in the 4200 block of South Oakley Road near Afton in April.

No. 6: Rock River rises again

As the Rock River rose and rose (and rose) amid heavy, relentless rains in April 2013, Rock County residents wondered if they'd see a repeat of the historic flood of May-June 2008.

It didn't happen. The Rock River at Afton reached a peak 11.8 feet by April 22—more than a foot and half lower than the flood crest of 13.5 feet registered at Afton in 2008.

Yet, residents in Janesville and at Lake Koshkonong saw river levels rise to the second or third most significant flood on record.

At Lake Koshkonong, flooding reached a crest of 12.4 feet, nearly a foot above major flood stage, according to federal river gauge data.

The floodwaters swamped dozens of homes in subdivisions around the Mallwood Estates neighborhood on Lake Koshkonong. Volunteer crews in Newville filled and trucked out thousands of sandbags for days before water levels plateaued and slowly fell over the course of three or four weeks.

Many of the lowest lying properties in Janesville, including a swath of homes in the bottoms at Mole and Sadler's subdivision on the city's north side had been cleared of homes wrecked in the 2008 flood.

But that didn't spare Riverside and Traxler Park, two of the city's lowest-slung parks from being swamped by floodwaters in spring.

After flooding in 2008 that drowned parts of downtown Janesville and sent spawning carp spilling into the streets, the city upgraded its sewer system to help funnel water downstream as at the Centerway Dam.

The city had as many as 12,000 sandbags at the ready, but flooding this year only lapped over the top of the city's downtown seawall in one spot.

Still, flooding went bumper high over South River road on Janesville's south side and prompted one man to put a snorkel on his truck so he could get to work.


No. 5: District's China plan sparks discussion

Janesville School District officials took numerous trips to China over the past year as they worked to establish ties that would bring tuition-paying foreign students to Janesville schools.

The initiative raised the eyebrows of some, including school board member Kevin Murray, who complained he wasn't being informed of developments and that related expenses—largely funded by donations—are unwarranted. Murray continues to be the only school board member to voice opposition to the trips.

The Janesville International Education Program, as it is called, is not limited to China, but many Chinese parents are keenly interested in getting their children into United States universities, and programs such as this offer them a way to do that.

Superintendent Karen Schulte has defended the initiative as a way to “globalize” local education, giving local students exposure to other cultures that will serve them well in their careers, and as a way to bring in new revenues.

After Murray's initial attacks on the program, Schulte began updating the board at every board meeting. The first Chinese students spent several weeks here last summer. The first Chinese student to enroll at a Janesville high school is expected in January.

Plans are in the works to hold short programs for students from China and Thailand in the months ahead.


No. 4: Shooting shocks community

An elderly man accused of shooting and killing his neighbor at his town of Plymouth home in February was found unfit for trial and confined at Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison.

In a case that shocked the Orfordville area, Daniel Bellard, 75, shot 59-year-old Christine Gestrich inside his barn on the morning of Feb. 6 and then shot himself with the same gun twice as Rock County sheriff's deputies closed in, officials said.

Neighbors expressed surprise and said they knew Gestrich and Bellard as good people.

"They were both the kind of people who would give you the shirt off their back,” one said.

Gestrich and her husband, Steve, were the beef project leaders for the Plymouth 4-H Club for nearly 30 years.

Doctors said injuries from those suicide attempts and the onset of dementia meant Bellard was not fit to proceed with the case, and that even with treatment he was not likely to become competent.

Rock County Judge James Daley agreed Oct. 24, sending Bellard to Mendota.

Prosecutors can reopen the case if Bellard regains competency, but whether that might ever happen is unknown.


No. 3: Highway 26 bypass finally opens

Change can bring growing pains and confusion, even if the change in question has been in the works for a decade.

In August, after years of planning and construction, the state Department of Transportation opened the Highway 26 bypass in Milton. Since it opened, traffic patterns have changed dramatically, with the most notable change being a lack of heavy through traffic in Milton's east side downtown.

The new, four-lane bypass draws traffic around the city at 55 mph, crossing above two sets of railroad lines. It links with an interchange at County N and roundabout exits at Highway 59, allowing traffic to get off to go to Milton, Whitewater and Edgerton.

The $44 million bypass is part of a larger $325 million lane expansion of Highway 26 north from Janesville to Watertown. It's designed to pull traffic off thoroughfares and spur commercial and industrial growth along the outskirts of cities along Highway 26, state and local officials have said.

In tandem with completion of the bypass, the city inked a land deal to purchase 23 acres for $600,000 and annex 158 more acres of privately-held land to expand the city's business park along the future Highway 26/59 corridor.

With the change in traffic patterns from the bypass came initial confusion by drivers, some who sought to get off the bypass to reach businesses and other destinations in Milton.

One of the main culprits for the confusion: a lack of state directional signs at exits along the bypass. It wasn't until just a few weeks ago that the state DOT and the city finally placed directional signs at the all of the main entries and exits at the bypass.

Dan Lassiter/dlassiter@gazettextra.com
Investigators gather under tents where they were investigating a possible death at 12016 W. Highway 14, west of Tolles Road in the town of Porter in November.

No. 2: Body-burning case lined with twists, turns

The death of a Fitchburg woman whose body was burned beyond recognition at a rural Evansville home in October was a case that got stranger at each turn.

Authorities say Nathan C. Middleton, 29, told them 18-year-old Aprina Paul died at his home at 12016 W. Highway 14 after he contacted her for sex via the online Craigslist site.

Middleton said she stayed the night, took an unknown drug, and he woke up in the morning to find her dead. He then built a backyard fire pit and started a large fire to burn the body. All the while, Middleton's fiance, who lived with him, was not aware of what had happened, investigators believe.

Middleton eventually was arrested on charges of hiding a corpse and mutilating a corpse, but there appears to be little if any evidence that might indicate how Paul died. Prosecutors are waiting for the results of forensic tests before considering any homicide charge.

Meanwhile, Middleton was accused of attempting escape in December after he allegedly wrote a letter to his mother, asking her to buy explosives to blow a hole in the wall of the Rock County Jail so he could escape with his family to Mexico, according to a criminal complaint.


No. 1: City manager pick a surprise

Mark Freitag's hiring in August as Janesville city manager ranked as the top story in local news for 2013, and the collective community surprise after the decision was announced might have helped propel the event upward.

Freitag was a U.S. Army colonel and deputy commander of Alaska when he was interviewed by the Janesville City Council and a residents' committee and also met with community members. The impression he made was favorable enough that the council hired selected him ahead of longtime city employee and then-acting City Manager Jay Winzenz.

Council President Kathy Voskuil later lauded Winzenz for the solid job he did filling the job after former City Manager Eric Levitt left in May for a new job in Simi Valley, Calif.

Council members afterward said an outgoing personality was important in their choice.

Freitag has never worked off a military base his adult life. He said his two years as garrison commander in Fort Hood, Texas, prepared him to run a city the size of Janesville.

Freitag decided in spring 2013 to forge a different career path and leave the Army five years short of mandatory retirement, knowing a promotion to brigadier general would be almost impossible.

Freitag acknowledges he has a learning curve and has been visiting other area city administrators and officials to learn more about his new community. He has met with city department heads and has been working with city attorney Wald Klimczyk to become more familiar with the state's open records laws.

Within two weeks of Freitag's start on Dec. 2, Winzenz, who had resumed his regular duties as assistant city manager and director of administrative services, stepped down as assistant city manager for “personal and professional reasons.”

That move could lead to some delays in projects such as the new fire station. Janesville Fire Chief Jim Jensen said that project now would be led by Carl Weber, public works director.

The next several months will tell whether the council's gamble pays off for the city and if Freitag can easily transition from military to civilian life.

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