2016: Star staff picks top stories

(Editor’s Note: The Miles City Star news staff voted last week for the Top 10 stories in Miles City in 2016. Summaries of stories numbers 1-5 are below. Summaries of stories 6-10 were published in Thursday’s newspaper.)

1. Price sentenced to life for Miles City murder

ntenced to life in prison with no chance of parole on Dec. 5 for the murder of Ed Martin, 78, and the aggravated kidnapping of his wife, Helen Martin. 

The crimes were committed on Dec. 14, 2015 at the Martins’ home.

Price was sentenced to life on each of the two counts, to be served concurrently. A 10-year sentence for using a weapon in the murder will be served consecutively to the life sentences. 

Sixteenth Judicial District Court Judge Michael Hayworth pronounced the sentence in the Custer County Courthouse. Price appeared by video with Public Defender Matt Wald.  

According to court records, Price went to the Martins house to look at a pickup truck that was for sale. After test driving the truck Price expressed interest in a fifth-wheel trailer and he and Ed Martin went out to the trailer with flashlights.

A short time later Price returned with a large gash on the bridge of his nose and asked Helen Martin for a bandage. He told her he had cut himself on the trailer.

Price stated he and Ed Martin got into a disagreement over the price of the pickup and Ed Martin hit him on the nose with a Maglite. Price took a knife inside the trailer and stabbed Ed Martin in the neck, killing him.

“We were really happy” with the sentence, county prosecutor Wyatt Glade told the Star.

He explained that the prosecution didn’t believe Price’s story that he went to the Martins’ home to buy a pickup and got into an argument. He said Price needed $700 for drugs. 

“He had no money to buy a pickup. He went over there to rob Ed,” Glade said.

At the sentencing hearing Katy Fitz said testified that the day before the murder, Price approached her to buy methamphetamine. He had to come up with $700. The next day he gave her the money and had a cut on his nose. 

On Dec. 12 Price also was sentenced to life in prison without parole in Missoula for the Dec. 21, 2015 stabbing death of 56-year-old Lonette Keehner, and the theft of her car. Keehner is the sister of Miles City resident Bonnie Boggs.

Price was arrested in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho on Dec. 22, 2015 on the Miles City and Missoula charges.

2. Sanjel closing

The Miles City office of oil-industry services company Sanjel closed May 1 due to the decline in the oil industry.

Liberty Oilfield Services purchased Sanjel’s assets in the U.S. while Step Energy Services bought Sanjel’s  assets in Canada as Sanjel underwent a bankruptcy proceeding.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed. 

Liberty currently does not have any operations in Montana, and it is too early in the process to know if Liberty will in the future, according to Liberty Vice President Ron Gusek.

The Miles City Star could not confirm how many Sanjel employees were effected by the closure. The company said it was working with employees to seek alternative job opportunities.

Miles City Area Economic Development Council Executive Director Mike Coryell said at one time Sanjel had 254 workers in Miles City. 

Sanjel came to Miles City about 10 years ago, and in December 2014 Sanjel went before the Miles City Council to talk about its plans to build a $15 million expansion. Unfortunately, that plan changed with the downturn in the oil market. Last year Sanjel was forced to lay off employees.

“It’s a great loss to Miles City and the region. … The biggest losses are, of course, the jobs and the people who it brought to Miles City. They were very good-paying jobs and brought skilled workers here,” Coryell said.

“Sanjel appreciates the support the community of Miles City has provided to our company and would like to take this opportunity to thank both our team members and community stakeholders for their contributions to our success,” a March 30 press release from Sanjel read.

The Calgary Herald newspaper quoted a letter employees received from Sanjel’s President and Chief Executive Darin MacDonald. It stated that cost-cutting pressure by exploration and production companies had dropped prices to break-even or less, making it impossible for Sanjel to maintain a strong balance sheet.

Liberty began in 2011 and is based in Denver, Colo. It currently operates in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, working in the Williston, Powder River and Denver-Julesburg basins.

3. VA Complex

Custer County Commissioners knew it was coming, since the VA Medical Center building was mostly empty and a law had been passed in 2000 allowing the facility to be turned over to the county.

However, it still came as a surprise when in August,  with no prior warning, the feds gave the commissioners  90 days to decide if they’ll take ownership of the complex. If not, the building would go to public auction, and the complex could turn into an eyesore in the hands of the wrong owner.

After requesting and receiving one extension, Commissioners were then faced with trying to get the VA to release information they needed to make a decision. After waiting for several weeks, they contact Montana’s Congressional delegation and finally received information like rental income and utility costs.

Now the Commissioners have requested another extension so that several interested parties can work to create a viable plan for the future of the entire VA complex.

Several individuals and organizations with experience in rehabilitating and renovating historic buildings have expressed enthusiastic interest in taking on the project. Local entities have also shown interest in taking over some portions of the complex beyond the main hospital building.

Since the building is in excellent general conditions, High Plain Architects of Billings, Homeword of Missoula, and the Sustaining Energy Funding Program, an national investor group, are all optimistic that a renovation could be accomplished at minimal to no cost to the county

When the VA Medical Center first opened in 1951, it was seen as a huge boon to the community and to area veterans. However as the VA’s priorities changed, the local VA, which was the smallest in the nationwide system, was seen as a burden by the VA and efforts began in 1965 to close it down.

The hospital finally closed in 1997, leaving a small clinic, a rest home, and a lot of empty space. The facility now has multiple tenants.

4. Downtown Renovations

A pair of Main Street buildings that have been empty for a long time have been extensively renovated and opened for business at the Holiday Stroll in Miles City on Dec. 2.

Vicki and Marc Leesburg opened Vintage and Rustics in Montana in the former Ben Franklin building at 813 Main St.

It’s an antiques mall that also features repurposed and reclaimed items. There are also crafts, collectibles and large vintage posters.

The opening of the store “is huge” for downtown Miles City, Miles City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director John Laney said. “Unfortunately that building had become an eyesore and looking like it is, is a big improvement. Anytime you fill a storefront on Main Street it’s good for the community, it lifts spirits and it picks everyone up,” he said.

The Baker’s Cupboard combines the many artistic talents of one family.

Located at 1616 Main St. the business owned by Bobby and Sarah Baker is a gallery of original art pieces, both functional and decorative. 

Sarah Baker’s father Elliott Eaton’s paintings are featured throughout the shop. Sister Christina Luoma raises Alpacas and makes her art out their wool by felting it. Luoma’s husband, Roger, makes bugs out of old metal parts he welds together. Sister, Ellisa Laws, created all the pottery in the shop. Brother Robert Eaton creates large wood carvings and works with tin and silver. Baker did the glass mosaics and mother Polly Story makes hair pins.

Laney said the two business are destination stores. “It brings people to a specific area and not by happenstance,” he said. 

Both businesses planned to serve food in the future.

5. Youth Detention Center

The Montana Department of Corrections was breaking the law by housing both youth and adult offenders at the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in Miles City.

That was the conclusions of a state legislative audit released on Oct. 5.

Montana Corrections Director Mike Batista disagreed with the findings. He told the Associated Press that the low inmate populations at the 72-bed Pine Hills facility and the 20-bed Riverside Youth Correctional Facility for female offenders required the department to take action to maximize resources.

Batista said the 18- to 25-year-old adult prisoners at Pine Hills are completely separated from the youth offenders housed at the facility. At Riverside, the three girls housed at the facility were transferred to a youth correctional facility in Idaho to make way for adult offenders, he said.

According to the audit, state law prohibits corrections officials from placing youths in facilities where adult offenders are carrying out their sentences. They are also prohibited from closing a youth detention facility — which is essentially what occurred at Riverside — without legislative approval, the audit concluded.

But Batista responded that another state law requires the department to maximize its resources. The issue will likely be taken up by the 2017 Montana Legislature.

As of Oct. 3 there were 39 youth and 13 adult inmates lodged at the youth prison in Miles City.