TUSCOLA COUNTY – As 2018 turns into 2019, local communities will move on from a year that brought an unusual amount of violence to the Thumb area.
The year 2017 ended with a bang – literally – following the news that an attempted robbery on Nov. 19, 2017, resulted in two would-be thiefs from Flint being gunned down by a Sanilac County home owner, while a third suspect committed suicide in the Sanilac County Jail.
It set the tone for 2018, as homicides occurred in Sanilac, Huron and Tuscola counties.
The area also saw its share of good news in 2018, as bond issues passed in a pair of school districts, state officials broke ground at the site of the new Caro Psychiatric Hospital and four young men from Frankenmuth exploded onto the national music scene.
Here are the top 10 local stories (in no particular order) from 2018:
What: Three homicides rock Tuscola County in the spring
Where: Watertown Township, Millington Township and Vassar Township
When: March and April
What happened: Tuscola County saw its first homicide in nearly five years after two bodies – one in Watertown Township, one in Millington Township – were found on March 30, and April 1 respectively.
Adam Michael Balcer, then 36, of Millington, was arrested and charged with 17 counts, including two counts of open homicide, in the shooting deaths of 45-year-old Peter Brodick, and his stepmother, 55-year-old Wendy Brodick.
Balcer rented a cottage from Wendy Brodick on North Lake in Watertown Township, and the killings likely were the result of a rent dispute. Balcer’s jury trial is scheduled to begin on Jan. 15.
Then, on April 28, another murder shook the county.
On that day, the remains of 33-year-old Neal Ellis were discovered by police on a Vassar Township property owned by 23-year-old Aaron Michael Eby. On April 30, Eby was charged with the murder of Ellis, an ex-roommate.
Homicides were not limited to Tuscola County in 2018. On Feb. 15, the bodies of Bob Bonini, wife Margo Bonini and daughter Katelyn Bonini were discovered by police in their home in the Huron County village of Sebewaing. Investigators discovered Bob Bonini shot his family members before turning the gun on himself.
On Sept. 1, in Sanilac County’s Buel Township, siblings Lebardo Torres-Castillo and Francisca Vargas-Castilla were arrested in connection with the slaying of 42-year-old Bricia Flores-Rivera.
Both suspects and the victim were in the United States illegally, according to a representative from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
What: Gov. Snider helps break ground for new Caro Psychiatric Hospital
Where: 2000 Chambers Road in Indianfields Township
When: Oct. 19
What happened: In June 2017, after years of uncertainty, the state announced that a new state-run psychiatric hospital would be built to replace the outdated Caro Center.
On Oct. 19, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder came to town to take part in a groundbreaking ceremony for the Caro Psychiatric Hospital, which is to be built on state-owned property near the present Caro Center.
At the ceremony, Snyder was joined by local lawmakers Mike Green (31st District state senator) and Edward (Ned) Canfield (84th District state representative) along with Caro Mayor Joe Greene and Caro Center director Rose Laskowski.
Although the new facility faces a road bump in the form of the question of who (city of Caro or Indianfields Township) is to provide its water, construction of the $115 million facility is scheduled to be completed in 2021.
What: Greta Van Fleet
What happened: Frankenmuth rock bond Greta Van Fleet took fans on a wild ride in 2018. Brothers Josh, Jake and Sam Kiszka and family friend Danny Wagner – all recent Frankenmuth High School graduates – traveled all over the world performing to sold-out crowds.
Greta Van Fleet formed in 2012 and performed some of its first live showsat Vassar Cork Pine Eatery & Saloon. But now, the band can be heard on rock stations worldwide.
The year 2018 saw Greta Van Fleet release its debut studio album – “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” in October – and race up the music charts. The album reached the top of Billboard’s Top 200 Albums Chart. It also took the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums and Rock Consumption charts and No. 3 on Billboard’s Top 200 Chart.
In July, the band appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and earlier this month learned that it had received four Grammy nominations – for Best New Artist, Best Rock Song for “Black Smoke Rising,” Best Rock Album for the band’s double EP “From The Fires” and Best Rock Performance for “Highway Tune.”
Greta Van Fleet will begin its “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” world tour Jan. 21 in Japan.
What: Wind issues in Juniata Township
Where: Juniata Township
What happened: It was a newsworthy year for folks living in Juniata Township.
The year 2018 began with about 14 hours of meetings as the township’s planning commission debated whether or not to approve a special land use permit (SLUP) submitted by Juno, Fla.- based NextEra Energy Resources for construction of a new wind farm called Pegasus Wind.
On Jan. 13, the planning commission unanimously voted to approve the SLUP, which at the time called for the construction of 63 wind turbines – 32 in Fairgrove Township and 31 in Juniata Township.
Shortly after the decision, members of the Concerned Citizens of Juniata Township group initiated recall proceedings for four members of the Juniata Township Board of Trustees. The recall petition was approved by the Tuscola County Election Committee for three board members – supervisor Neil Jackson, treasurer Andrew Stark and clerk Heidi Stark.
In the November general election, the three recalled board members lost to Garrett Tetil (supervisor), Brenda Bigham (clerk) and Judy Cockerill (treasurer), respectively.
Base support construction for most of the wind turbines has been completed, but NextEra is presently waiting to acquire permits from multiple entities, including the Federal Aviation Administration, Tuscola Area Airport and the state Office of Aeronautics which issues Tall Structure Permits.
In the meantime, earlier this month the new Juniata Township board passed two resolutions aimed at the planning commission – one that prohibits commission members from voting if there is a conflict of interest, and another that states that the planning commission will only make recommendations on zoning ordinance changes, with the board having the final say.
What: Almer Township wins federal lawsuit
Where: Almer Township
What happened: Juniata Township wasn’t the only local municipality making news in regard to wind turbine issues. As 2018 began, Almer Township and its board were embroiled in a federal suit filed by NextEra Energy Resources.
The lawsuit named the Almer Township Board of Trustees and Almer
Township Planning Commission as defendants.
The 49-page complaint identified five counts – claim of appeal, violation of procedural due process, equal protection, the Zoning Enabling Act and the Open Meetings Act. Previously, in Bay City District Court, Federal Judge Thomas L. Ludington ruled in favor of Almer Township on the first four counts. On Aug. 14, Ludington ruled in favor of Almer Township on the Open Meetings Act portion of the complaint.
In August, Ludington made his final decision on the matter, ruling in favor of Almer Township on all five counts.
The complaint was filed in February 2017 after the Almer Township Planning Commission ordered a moratorium to take more time to decide on whether to approve a special land use permit (SLUP) that would have permitted it to construct the Tuscola Wind III Energy Center. The project would have placed 55 wind turbines in Fairgrove, Ellington and Almer townships.
What: Bond issues pass for Tuscola County school districts
Where: Cass City, Vassar
When: May 8
What happened: It was a long time coming for Vassar Community Schools.
On May 8, voters within the school district voted yes to approve a bond issue request of $12 million, after failing to get the necessary votes for a $19.7 million bond proposal in May of 2017, and a $16 million bond proposal in August 2017.
The bond will provide funds for improvements including a new roof, boilers, football-stadium bleachers, asphalt parking lots, classroom and office flooring.
Also on May 8, Cass City school district voters approved an $8.7 million bond issue. Passage of the bond issue will pay for improvements at Cass City Junior/Senior High School and Cass City Elementary School, and at the Cass City Early Childhood Center housing preschool and day-care programs.
In the same election, Millington Community Schools voters turned down $11.3 million and $2.2 million bond requests.
What: Recreational marijuana legalized
When: Nov. 6
What happened: In the 2018 midterm election, Michigan voters approved a proposal legalizing recreational marijuana.
Although the bond issue passed 56 percent to 44 percent in Michigan, the measure failed in Tuscola County with 10,026 voting in favor and 12,178 against.
The measure will allow adults over 21 to possess, grow and use small amounts of marijuana legally. Adults also will be able to grow up to 12 total marijuana plants at home, possess 2.5 ounces in public and store 10 ounces in their residence – in addition to what they grow legally.
Portions of the new law allowing for licensed businesses to grow, process and sell cannabis to consumers will come online over the next year. State regulators will issue business licenses for cultivators, processors, testing labs, secure transporters, retail outlets and cannabis businesses.
Some local municipalities – including the villages of Millington and Unionville and Tuscola Township – have made clear the desire to not allow the sale or growth of recreational marijuana. However, it can still be used on personal property.
What: Vassar athlete convicted of multiple sex crimes
When: April 23
What happened: A former Vassar football and basketball player was sentenced to remain in juvenile detention until further notice following conviction of multiple sex crimes.
Quintin Smith, 16, had been charged with sex crimes in five separate files with accusations ranging from inappropriate behavior to rape. Six girls accused Smith of some form of sexual harassment, and he was ultimately convicted of four felony offenses – three counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct and one count of accosting minor for immoral purposes – along with one misdemeanor (fourth-degree CSC).Vassar Community Schools officials allowed Smith to remain in school, and even play sports, while Smith was being investigated by the Vassar Police Department for the first three sexual misconduct complaints.
Vassar high school principal, and varsity football coach, Jason Kiss, who at the time had contacted police twice to report sexual misconduct complaints with Smith as the suspect, kept the then freshman on the 2016 varsity football team even though Smith provided a written confession to Vassar police in which he admitted to sexually assaulting a classmate inside Vassar High School months earlier.
Smith will remain on the Michigan Sex Offender Registry for the next 25 years.
What: County votes to allow Sunday packaged liquor purchase
Where: Tuscola County
When: Aug. 7
What happened: Tuscola County was the only one of Michigan’s 83 counties that didn’t allow Sunday liquor sales.
Now there are none.
In the August election, county voters approved the sale of Sunday packaged liquor with 7,048 residents voting yes and 4,190 voting no.
Local merchants made a push in the spring to get the proposal on the August ballot. In late April, local business honors presented a petition with about 4,000 signatures to Tuscola County Clerk Jodi Fetting, putting in motion the possibility of the proposal getting on the August ballot.
What: Thumb mulls implementing antler point restrictions
Where: Tuscola, Huron, Sanilac, St. Clair and Lapeer counties
What happened: A question has been raised in regard to whether the state should require a buck to have at least four points on one antler before a hunter kills it in Tuscola, Huron, Sanilac, St. Clair and Lapeer counties.
The decision could impact 54,000 people who hunt in those counties.
The DNR plans to mail surveys by mid-January to about 2,000 randomly selected individuals who hunt deer in that five-county region. If statisticians deem that at least 66 percent of hunters in the region support the proposed antler point restrictions, then the state Natural Resources Commission would consider implementing the restrictions.
The state is conducting the survey at the request of the Thumb Hunters for APRs, and the campaigns regarding the proposed APRs have intensified, with billboards and yard signs dotting Thumb-area highways and back roads.
The United Sportsmen’s Alliance has placed signs opposing the restrictions.