MUSCATINE — The past year was full of news. Here is a recap of some of the big stories from the area in 2018:
1. City of Muscatine paid more than $161K in IDOT lawsuit
Legal fees in a lawsuit the City of Muscatine had with the Iowa Department of Transportation regarding the use of a speed camera the intersection of U.S. 61 and University totaled $161,847.49 in January.
IDOT ordered the city to remove the camera in March 2015 arguing it had not improved public safety at the intersection and the camera was 170 feet too close to the intersection. The city, along with Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, filed separate petitions for judicial review. The district court ruled in favor of IDOT, but cities appealed.
The city argued its main reason for fighting the lawsuit was public safety. In 2011, the number of speed violations was 12,581 and by 2016, that number had decreased to 5,999.
The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of Muscatine stating IDOT did not have authority to regulate cameras without action from the state legislature. The cameras were turned on again June 18.
2. Muscatine mayor files defamation countersuit
In response to Muscatine City Adminstrator Gregg Mandsager filing a lawsuit against Mayor Diana Broderson and the City of Muscatine for defamation the previous year, Broderson filed a countersuit.
In it she alleges "abuse of process, defamation, inflicting of emotional distress, malicious prosecution and other claims" by Mandsager, City Attorney Matt Brick and sitting city council members during her removal from office.
Broderson began her second term in January, but was removed last May by unanimous council vote. Muscatine County District Court vacated the removal because council members violated her right to due process and had an interest in her impeachment.
Broderson also accuses Mandsager, Brick and former and current council members named in the lawsuit of defamation for allegedly exposing her to public hatred and ridicule, injuring her in the maintenance of her occupation and causing her to suffer mental pain and damage to her reputation.
Councilmembers included in the lawsuit are Allen Harvey, Phil Fitzgerald, Santos Saucedo, Michael Rehwaldt, Thomas Spread, Scott Natvig and Bob Bynum.
3. Merrill Hotel opens in downtown Muscatine
The $42 million dollar Merrill Hotel and Conference Center opened to the public in March on River Drive in Muscatine.
The building, named after HON Industries chairman and CEO Stanley Merrill Howe, includes 112 guest rooms and suites, a 100-plus space parking garage, and meeting room and ballroom.
On the sixth floor, the 12,500-square foot conference center has large views of the Mississippi River and was accepted into the International Association of Conference Centers. The 4-star boutique hotel also features a restaurant, and business and fitness centers.
Developer Andy MacLellan said he worked with the city for four years on the project and it was designed to get visitors out into the community. He said funding for the hotel was possible from a state hotel tax rebate program and a TIF district created by the city.
Many events have been hosted at the hotel since it opened including the Holiday Stroll.
4. Suspect arrested, charged in decades old cold case
After 25 years, the case of the bludgeoning death of Corey Lee Wieneke went cold until this year when a suspect was arrested for his murder.
Annette D. Cahill, of Tipton, was charged in June with first-degree murder. A trial date has been set for March 6. If convicted, Cahill faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
Wieneke was found dead Oct. 13, 1992, by his fiancee in his rural Muscatine County home. In the criminal complaint, Cahill (formerly known as Annette Hazen) was allegedly in a sexual relationship with Wieneke and the two had a heated argument that day about his involvement with another woman. Cahill allegedly made conflicting statements about her whereabouts that morning.
The complaint also listed the cause of death as blunt force trauma and Cahill had revealed Wieneke had been killed by being struck by a baseball bat to an individual prior to the recovery of a murder weapon or investigators having that information.
Muscatine County Sheriff C.J. Ryan has worked on the case since it began. Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation also worked on the case.
5. City, council, citizens look at branding Muscatine
There was much discussion about the soft roll out of the community-wide rebranding effort this summer the city and other stakeholders started in 2016.
"Muscatine: Where the river takes a turn for the better" was the new tagline for the community accompanied by a blue and green stained glass logo of a river developed by North Star, a Tennessee-based consulting firm. The City of Muscatine paid $16,000 of the $88,000 study conducted by the company that included consultant tours of the area, focus groups and interviews with residents.
The other portion of the cost was divided among Muscatine Chamber of Commerce, Muscatine Power & Water, UnityPoint Health-Trinity Muscatine, Muscatine Community College and the school district.
A presentation was made before the Muscatine City Council regarding the uses of the materials, specifically how they could be used by the various entities. A group of residents formed a petition expressing their opposition to the city using the new logo and tagline. Residents also spoke to the council during an in-depth meeting to voice their opinions on the design and cost of the project, with some arguing residents of Muscatine should have the final say.
The city has maintained the branding study was a community-wide effort to form a unified marketing strategy that would promote living and working in Muscatine.
6. Hawk Newberry and Sadie Alvarado
The bodies of two young people were found over the summer with ties to Muscatine.
Hawk Newberry, 2, fell into the Mississippi River July 24 off a dock at Rock Island’s Schwiebert Park. His body was recovered nearly two weeks later near Brown's Island at Riverside Park in Muscatine.
Rescue attempts were made by bystanders immediately after the boy fell into the water. The family continued to search beyond July 30 when recovery efforts were suspended.
Following an argument in early August, Sadie Alvarado, 20, of Muscatine, allegedly jumped from the moving vehicle in which she and her boyfriend, Damian Hamann, were traveling, according to police. Her body was discovered in a ditch in Lee County, Iowa.
Hamann, 28, of Morning Sun, turned himself in to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. He was charged with a class D felony of one count of leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison.
In the criminal complaint, Hamann told officers he returned home to Morning Sun and returned to Lee County after noon to look for Alvarado.
7. GPC class action lawsuit reaches settlement
A settlement was reached in the years-long class action lawsuit involving Grain Processing Corp in Muscatine's Southend.
The company will pay more than $50 million in benefits, with $45 million going to a fund for the class of an estimated 14,000 residents within 1.5 mile-radius of the plant. Another $6.5 million will cover pollution controls at the plant.
The nature of the plant's emissions had been argued for around six years. Attorneys for the class argued negligent plant emissions and odor was a nuisance that led to a loss of enjoyment of property near the plant. Other arguments included trespassing claims, health-related damages and damages caused by public nuisance. Judge John Telleen dismissed the negligence claim arguing GPC has the right to release emissions that are non-negligent and likely produce odor.
In a statement, GPC noted recent plant upgrades including installing emission control equipment and processes, eliminating coal burning and using clean natural gas as a fuel source. An $83 million advanced drying system will also replace 11 existing dryers.
Notices have since been sent to class members who lived in the area of the plant since 2007 with information on who is covered and how claims for payment may be filed.
8. Muscatine School Board closes Colorado Elementary School
The Muscatine School District will see some big changes beginning next school year.
The Muscatine School Board approved closing Colorado Elementary School to repurpose it as an early education center for the district starting with the 2019-2020 school year. Colorado students will be in the Madison Elementary School attendance area, but parents will have a choice on other open elementary schools.
The board also decided to close Central Middle School the following year and move sixth grade students to elementary schools, leaving seventh- and eighth-graders at the middle schools.
Overall declining student population is the driving force behind the decisions and each part of the plan is affected by enrollment. Superintendent Jerry Riibe said in the last 18 years, enrollment has dropped by 640 students with a decrease by 200 students in the last three years.
9. Announcement of major solar project coming to Wapello
Central Iowa Power Cooperative, CIPCO, announced it would join with an Idaho-based firm to develop one of the largest solar projects in the Midwest.
Clēnera Renewable Energy is planning to create a solar panel farm near Wapello on approximately 800 acres. The farm will hold 350,000 panels and is projected to be complete by the end of 2020.
According to information presented by the company at a meeting with local leaders earlier this year, officials expect more than $20 million in economic benefit for the county.
The project is also anticipated to create 350 jobs during the construction portion. After the panels are built, they are expected to generate enough energy to power 18,000 homes.
10. Muscatine man charged in fatal stabbing of grandmother
In the early morning hours of Dec. 12, Diana Lensgraf was found dead in her Muscatine home from alleged stab wounds. It was also her 66th birthday.
Shortly after the call to Muscatine County Joint Communications Center to report the woman dead, police arrested her grandson, 19-year-old Darian D. Lensgraf at a convenience store on Grandview Avenue and charged him with her murder.
Authorities were led to Lensgraf after a clerk called to report a male subject in the store holding a bloody knife.
According to the criminal complaint, Lensgraf made post-Miranda statements that he took the knife to his grandmother's house with the intent to kill her.
If convicted, Lensgraf faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. A jury trial is set for Feb. 11 in Muscatine County court.