Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories recapping some of the top area news stories of 2018. For top area sports stories of 2018, see the sports section.
The Great Bend Tribune’s top news stories of 2018 included a double homicide at the Barton County Fair and the murder of a 2-year-old girl in Hoisington. But readers also wanted to know about changes in local government and the change of ownership at Great Bend Regional Hospital. Some of the news made us angry; such was the case when fake bomb hoaxes targeted people with disabilities. Some stories caused people to choose sides, while others had us coming together. Here are some of the top local stories of the past year, as determined by readers’ online engagement as well as the Tribune staff’s recollection. They are in no particular order.
On the afternoon of March 20, 2-year-old Iviona Marae May Lewis was reported missing from her home in Hoisington and law enforcement officers began going door to door with pictures of the girl who had disappeared two days earlier. On Wednesday morning, March 21, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation reported that little Iviona had been found dead in rural Barton County and Chaz Stephens, 25, had been arrested.
In September, Stephens appeared in Barton County District Court and entered pleas of “not guilty” to eight charges, including first-degree murder, child abuse, possession of methamphetamine and reporting false information about her death to law enforcement.
The first-degree murder charge is an off-grid felony, which means if convicted Stephens could face a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.
As this case moves through the court system, Stephens is scheduled for a motions hearing on Thursday, Jan. 3.
Murder at the county fair
Sadly, this would not be Barton County’s only homicide in 2018. During the Barton County Fair in July, authorities reported that a couple from Wichita who were vendors at the fair had gone missing.
Alfred “Sonny” Carpenter, 78, and Pauline Carpenter, 79, sold kids toys, purses and other items from a trailer they towed behind their recreational vehicle.
Their bodies were later recovered in a shallow grave in Arkansas and five people were arrested in connection with the deaths and the attempt to hide the bodies. Recently, the suspects were extradited from Arkansas to Barton County and formally charged. Police believe the murder suspects were trying to take something from the Carpenters when one suspect, Michael Fowler, shot them. All of the suspects are scheduled to have hearings via telephone conferences in Barton County District Court in January.
Operation Snowplow busts major drug ring
The Barton County Sheriff’s Office reported it had broken a “major drug ring” with the execution of nine search warrants in the early hours of Monday, October 1. An ongoing investigation involving multiple law enforcement agencies was dubbed “Operation Snowplow.”
Suspected heroin, LSD, cocaine and meth were among the substances seized. Sheriff Brian Bellendir said a preliminary estimate set the street value of the drugs at half a million dollars. Search warrants were executed at six Great Bend residences and on three vehicles. Seven people were arrested and the sheriff told the Barton County Commission he had been in contact with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Wichita about the possibility of federal assistance with the case. This is yet another case that will remain in the news in 2019.
Rose Younger dies after hit-and-run
On the evening February 3, Rose Younger was walking home from the St. Patrick Parish Center when she was struck by a vehicle. The driver has yet to be identified.
Younger was found unconscious, steps from her home, by a man and his family on their way to the church. She regained consciousness at the local hospital but passed away from her injuries hours later.
As months went by and the case remained unsolved, Younger’s family offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the driver of the vehicle. People may contact the Great Bend Police Department, 620-793-4120, with any information.
Sheriff Acquitted, County Attorney Resigns
It took a six-person jury less than 20 minutes on Nov. 16 to find Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir not guilty of ill-treatment of a confined person, but the misdemeanor case dragged on for several months before it came to trial.
Bellendir’s charge stemmed from the night of Aug. 10, 2017, when he arrested Nathan Manley outside a Great Bend residence. A video from a Great Bend Police Officer’s body camera showed Bellendir making the arrest and briefly cursing at a handcuffed Manley and thumping him on the head.
Misdemeanor charges were brought against Bellendir in November of 2017 after a KBI investigation. They were filed by Chase County Attorney William R. Halvorsen, who was appointed as a special prosecutor after Barton County Attorney Amy Mellor recused herself. District Judge Mike Keeley appointed Halvorsen and than recused himself as well.
“I do not believe my actions rise to the level of the crime charged,” said the sheriff in a statement issued after the charge was filed. “I look forward to the time when I will be able to inform the public of the entire situation. ... It has been my goal as Sheriff to keep the public informed and I intend to do so in due course.” He declined plea negotiations and the case went before a jury.
Bellendir blamed Mellor for the charge and the KBI investigation as well, since the county attorney’s husband Bruce Mellor was at the KBI. The sheriff’s defense attorney said Mellor had “hoodwinked” Keeley into appointing her friend Halvorsen.
More than a misdemeanor charge was at stake. The Kansas Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training, known as KS-CPOST, could have taken action regarding Bellendir’s certification if he was convicted. Mellor is a member of the KS-CPOST board.
The Barton County Commission issued a statement of support for the sheriff before the trial, and commissioner Don Davis said, “I want to make it known to everyone that these frivolous charges against are sheriff are going to cost the county.”
After his acquittal, Bellendir said it wasn’t over and he sent Mellor a letter outlining his plan to go to the county commission on Nov. 26. “I will be requesting the commissioners retain independent counsel to research and investigate removing you from office either by ouster or recall,” the letter stated.
But on Nov. 20, Mellor responded with a letter to the “Citizens of Barton County.” She announced plans to resign in December due to “bullying” by the sheriff. She also shared Bellendir’s letter.
Mellor’s letter began: “During my 23-year career as a law enforcement officer and my 10 years as a prosecutor, I’ve long appreciated and worked to maintain the spirit of mutual cooperation among our law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, including county attorneys’ offices. While it is impossible to avoid all conflicts and differences of opinion, we rely on communication, collaboration, and pillars like our judicial system to ensure that we’re working for the best interest of all citizens. ... I had hoped that once the criminal matter was concluded, healing could begin and all parties could act like adults and perform our duties. Based on Sheriff Bellendir’s continued actions and his letter, this is clearly not possible.”
With Mellor’s resignation effective on December 7, the Republican Committee of Barton County was tasked with recommending a replacement. On Dec. 10, the committee chose Levi Morris, an attorney for Lyons who has served in the Barton County Attorney’s Office in the past.
Remembering Dade Cannon
Early in the year, on Jan. 12, 2018, 14-year-old Dade Michael Cannon passed away peacefully at his Great Bend home, surrounded by his family. The son of Manford Cannon and Christy Huslig was a student at Great Bend Middle School. He was first diagnosed with leukemia when he was 5 years old.
After Dade’s death in January, the Great Bend Tribune’s post on Facebook began with these words, “Warrior. Hero. No matter how you describe him there is no doubt that Dade Michael Cannon touched our community in a profound way.” That post was among the ones most seen and shared by Tribune followers; there were more than 30,000 interactions of one type or another, including views, comments and shares.
An editorial by the Tribune’s managing editor Dale Hogg noted, “It seems unfair that he was taken so soon. But, we must not dwell on the sorrow and suffering. Instead, we must focus on what we all learned – courage and strength don’t depend on age or size.”
Kans for Kids Fighting Cancer Foundation, a nonprofit organization that worked with Dade and his family for years, created the Dade Cannon Memorial Scholarship for the siblings of youths who have been assisted by Kans for Kids. In other news, Kans for Kids (kans4kidsfoundation.org) announced the expansion of Kans for Kids Outreach into Pawnee County in December.
New City Administrator
Kendal Francis was named Great Bend’s city administrator at the July 16 city council meeting.
Audience members applauded the appointment of Francis when it was made by Mayor Joe Andrasek and also applauded a few minutes later when councilman Joel Jackson suggested longtime City Administrator Howard Partington and Interim City Administrator George Kolb were deserving of thanks. Partington was in the audience and Jackson noted he left the city in stable shape when he retired last year.
Partington retired on Aug. 16, 2017, after 36 years of working for the city. Kolb, a retired city administrator from Wichita, was hired as the interim city administrator in September.
Two months into his job as city administrator, Francis said there’s a lot going on, from street improvements to long-term projects. He mentioned new employees in key positions, including Simon Wiley, the new assistant public works director, and James Cell, the city’s first networking administrator, and he’d just hired an assistant engineer, Sreehitha “Hita” (pronounced HEE-ta) Kadiyala.
Work on the new section of Eighth Street between Grant and McKinley got underway this fall, and on Oct. 15 the Great Bend City Council approved authorizing the sale of general obligation temporary notes to pay for the street, sewer and water improvements to the three-block stretch.
Although the city is footing the costs up front, it will be reimbursed by the property owners along the new street.
Venture Corporation of Great Bend finished the base coat of asphalt and then the final coat in December. The next step is for APEC of Hutchinson to begin installing the new water and sewer lines. Substantial completion is expected by mid-January, weather permitting.
Eighth Street is key to the planned improvements to 10th and Grant intersection since it can act as a bypass to help ease traffic during that endeavor. That is a Kansas Department of Transportation project scheduled to start until next March.