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A Year of News: Second-tier stories highlight events of the year

by The Western News
| January 5, 2012 1:12 PM

  Editor’s Note: During 2011, we watched as newsmakers stepped to the forefront. Recently, an online readers’ poll selected the Top 10 stories of 2011. Here is the second-tier of those stories. The first-tier will appear in Friday’s editions.

Stufflebeam, Belcher and Stinger among top stories of 2011

First of two parts

#6

Jacob William Stufflebeam, the man who pleaded guilty in the shooting death of his child’s mother, in July received a 10-year sentence for the crime, five years of which have been suspended by 19th Judicial District Judge James B. Wheelis.

Stufflebeam, 31 at the time of his sentencing, agreed in May to plead guilty to one count of negligent homicide and prosecutors agreed to drop two misdemeanor charges.

Stufflebeam also had been charged with criminal mischief and shooting from or across a road.

Stufflebeam approved the guilty plea of negligent homicide in the Jan. 13  shooting death of 25-year-old Sara Jane Gudmundsen.

The couple allegedly were drinking and riding with others in a passenger car near Libby Dam when Stufflebeam allegedly used a pistol to shoot at road signs out of the car window. He allegedly unintentionally shot her as he was placing the gun in the holster.

According to court documents, Stufflebeam told authorities he had unintentionally shot Gudmundsen when, sitting in the back seat, his .222-caliber pistol discharged into the seat in front of him and struck her.

The driver of the car allegedly raced to town and called 911. Deputies met the car north of Libby on Highway 37.

Gudmundsen was taken to St. John’s Lutheran Hospital where she was pronounced dead.

In February, Wheelis denied a bond reduction in the case, but then approved Stufflebeam’s release on house arrest in May until his sentencing, as the case was argued by Defense Attorney Courtney Nolan. Nolan said Stufflebeam did not pose a flight risk because the charges stem from negligence, not malice.

Nolan also pointed out that he was not a flight risk, as his family – including his daughter – lives in the area.

Stufflebeam’s bond originally was set at $200,000 after his arrest.

Dispatch took the call at 10:50 p.m. and authorities met the vehicle five miles north of Libby on Highway 37.

Stufflebeam could have faced a maximum of 20 years in prison for negligent homicide, plus additional time for two related misdemeanor charges of criminal mischief and shooting from or across a road or highway right-of-way.

Gudmundsen and Stufflebeam shared a then-3-year-old daughter, but they were not in a relationship at the time of the shooting.

Belcher sentenced

#7

July

The Rev. Donald W. Belcher, the retired Episcopal priest who once ran the Dirty Shame Saloon in the Yaak, received a suspended sentence in July in Cecil County Court, Md., for sexually abusing two young girls.

Belcher, then 82, who entered an Alford plea on the two counts of sexual abuse of minors in Cecil County Circuit Court, could have faced 50 years in prison — 25 years on each count.

Citing his age and that he had no prior convictions, Judge Christian Kahl, a visiting judge from the Baltimore Circuit, suspended Belcher’s sentence to time served and sentenced him  to five years supervised probation. However, Belcher must register as a sex offender in his county of residence.

Assistant States Attorney Kevin Urick, who prosecuted the case, obviously was disappointed in the decision.

“We were seeking a 20-year sentence with five years supervised probation,” Urick said. “We feel this man is physically able to serve, seeing as how the last of these (offenses) occurred just nine months ago. We felt his physical state and age is applicable to the sentence we sought.”

The judge also allows Belcher to serve his probation in Montana, where he plans to return, Urick said. “Yes. He does plan to return to Montana,” Urick said.

In January, Belcher entered an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to maintain his innocence while acknowledging that the state has enough evidence to convict.

Belcher was indicted by a grand jury on charges of molesting a 15-year-old girl in 2006 and an 8-year-old girl in September of last year in the Cecil County town of North East, Md. As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors dropped two other sex offense charges, officials said.

The abuse was not related to Belcher’s pastoral duties, investigators and church officials said. No information was available on the victims.

However, Urick said the victims were relatives, although “not blood relatives. They were in-laws.”

Belcher served as vicar at Holy Cross Church in Street, Md., for six years until 2007, when he retired and moved to northwestern Montana, where he owns a bar. He was arrested in the Yaak in December and extradited to Maryland in January.

Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland prohibited Belcher from exercising any priestly functions in January. With the conviction, the diocese has pursued deposing Belcher to permanently exclude him from the Episcopal priesthood.

Belcher was ordained a priest in Montana and served several parishes in that state before his assignment began in Maryland in 2001.

Belcher and his wife, Gloria, purchased the Dirty Shame Saloon in the Yaak from Rick Carsello in 2006. Belcher was minister of Holy Trinity Church in Troy and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Libby from 1996 to 2001.

He had owned the Yaak River Lodge from 1992 to 2002 before moving to Maryland. Belcher has addresses in both North East, Md., and Yaak.

Belcher was ordained a priest in Montana in 1997. He was suspended by the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland on Jan. 6.

He served as an associate of pastoral care at St. Mary’s Church in Abingdon, Md., from June to December 2008 and was vicar of the Church of the Holy Cross in Street, Md., from 2001 to 2007. He also previously worked as an executive for a pharmaceutical company, as a wine importer and as a stockbroker.

Stinger rises, adds jobs

#8

January

Bridge parts fabricator Stinger Welding plans to add much-needed jobs to the local economy when construction of its new building is completed in the coming months.

In order to fill the new welding positions with a local, skilled workforce, Flathead Valley Community College-Lincoln County Campus teamed up with Stinger to create a custom-built, 10-week welding program that includes classroom coursework, as well as hands-on training.

Students will be able to take classes that count toward the first semester of the college’s two-semester welding certificate – which had only been offered at the Kalispell campus – while gaining skills necessary to obtain an entry-level job at Stinger.

“We’re bringing the welding program to Libby and customizing that training to fit Stinger hiring needs,” said Pat Pezzelle, director of the college’s Lincoln County campus.

Pezzelle said that, in essence, classes in the college’s original program were rearranged.

“We sat down with Stinger and said, ‘What are the skill sets you need in order to hire someone for entry-level?’” he said. “… We took those courses and we loaded them up front.”

Pezzelle warns that students who complete the program aren’t guaranteed a job at Stinger, but that it will give them a competitive edge.

The program is designed to accommodate up to 20 students in each 10-week session. Pezzelle said Tuesday there were five spots open in the first group, which starts class Jan. 18. The college plans to run four cycles between Jan. 18 and Nov. 4 in order to train 80 people and form a healthy hiring pool for Stinger.

One 10-student group will take a welding blueprints class and a math and communication class in the morning, while the other group gains hands-on welding experience. In the afternoon, they will switch.

The welding lab is contained in a 50-foot trailer with 10 portable welding stations that will be parked on campus. Students will learn a technical type of welding that goes beyond the average rod welding, Pezzelle said.

At the end of the 10 weeks, students will earn a total of 14 credits and knowledge to pass a national certification test that measures entry-level welding skills.

“They can take that certificate and it tells any potential employer that they have basic flux core arc welding skills,” Pezzelle said. “If Stinger doesn’t suit their fancy, they can take their welding skills wherever.”

Voters balk at bond issue

#9

February

Libby School District voters rejected a $12 million bond issue that supporters say was necessary to perform critical structure upgrades and responsibly pare down kindergarten through 12th-grade into two buildings.

In a rough 61-39 split, Libby voters said no to a bond that would have increased annual property taxes for the next two decades.

“Right to the end when they were doing the printout I was expecting to see the numbers flopped around the other way, but they weren’t,” Superintendent K.W. Maki said. “… At least we had a good number of people vote. When you get that many to vote you get a pretty clear picture of what the community and parents think.”

The 55.8-percent voter turnout was astounding, according to Lincoln County Elections Administrator Tammy Lauer. The measure was rejected by 1,844 voters and favored by 1,158.

The mail-ballot election began Jan. 14 and ended Tuesday night. Two-thirds of the 3,002 ballots were turned in by last week, Lauer said. On the final day of the election, a steady stream of people dropped by the clerk and recorder’s office in the courthouse to place their ballot in the box.

Taking into consideration the offhanded comments from voters at the counter, Lauer said she couldn’t tell which direction the election would take. She was surprised by the margin.

“There were as many that said, ‘I hope this thing goes,’ as there were people who said, ‘Oh, I can’t afford it,’” Lauer said. “I was surprised there was that big of a spread.”

The Libby School Board voted last October to run a bond issue, stating that $12 million was a conservative amount to perform needed renovations and upgrades. The renovations, trustees said, would be necessary to accommodate more students of different ages in the middle and high schools after Asa Wood Elementary is closed. The critical upgrades, they explained, would ensure that the two buildings could be utilized for at least the next 20 years.

Maki and board trustees expressed disappointment with the results. Trustee Ellen Johnston said she hopes that those who voted against the bond are not parents with kids in the school district.

“I like to think it’s an older population that doesn’t have kids in school and is not concerned with education,” she said. “I hope it’s that and not people who are not putting education first.”

Board trustee Lee Disney said he believes that some who voted against the bond were not informed about the issue.

“We laid out a good plan. We did everything we could to educate the people of what we were trying to do. Some chose to not even take a look,” he said. “They just voted no on taxes and never bothered to look at what we were asking for. With that kind of attitude – it’s hard to beat those.”

School officials and community advocates papered the town with pamphlets, held evening meetings, met with teachers and staff at the schools, wrote guest columns and letters in the newspaper, built websites and set up informational tables at sporting events and the grocery store.

“The school system’s not going to die and we’re not going to come off the wheels,” Disney said. “It’s going to be tough to offer the quality education we want for our students. It’s going to be tough on the staff to do that.”

Arkansas fugitive in Troy

#10

February

A man who fled Arkansas last summer after posting bond for child rape charges was arrested without incident from his Troy residence last week, according to Chief of Police Bob McLeod.

Steven Carl Williams, 52, of Bentonville, Ark., made his home in Troy for a period of what McLeod guesses was about six months before Arkansas authorities tracked him down and obtained a nationwide warrant for his arrest.

The fugitive faced charges related to the alleged rape of three girls – ages 12, 13 and 14 – that Williams was entrusted with as their “talent coach,” according to reports from the Benton County (Ark.) Daily Record.

One alleged victim claimed Williams told her that he had worked with several famous actresses before they became stars, according to court documents obtained by the Daily Record.

McLeod suspects that Williams had been using a false last name while residing in Troy. When Arkansas authorities inquired about Williams, “the name didn’t ring a bell,” McLeod said, and it didn’t show up in his computer system.

However, McLeod recognized Williams as soon as he viewed the man’s mugshot.

Bentonville police arrested Williams in early 2009 on sexual-assault charges. Authorities learned that he skipped town when he didn’t appear at a hearing last summer less than a month before his July 27 trial date.