Northland's top 10 stories of 2013: Tying the knot, flying high, crashing to earthSynthetic drugs and the controversy surrounding their sale at the Last Place on Earth, a downtown Duluth head shop owned by Jim Carlson, led the News Tribune’s list of top 10 stories of the year for 2011 and 2012.
By: News Tribune staff, Duluth News Tribune
Synthetic drugs and the controversy surrounding their sale at the Last Place on Earth, a downtown Duluth head shop owned by Jim Carlson, led the News Tribune’s list of top 10 stories of the year for 2011 and 2012.
In 2013, the store’s closure and Carlson’s conviction on 51 federal charges related to synthetic drug sales pushed the story to the top of the annual list, as voted on by News Tribune reporters and editors.
This year’s “top 10” list stretched to 12 stories, thanks to several ties in the voting. A plane crash that drew worldwide attention, the legalization of same-sex marriage in Minnesota, ongoing debates over major mining projects and a stunningly snowy spring were among the other stories to make the cut.
Here’s a look back at what made news in the Northland in 2013.
1. Jim Carlson found guilty
At the beginning of this year, Jim Carlson was a multimillionaire businessman with a downtown Duluth store, a vacation property in Mexico and millions of dollars in cash.
By the end of the year, he was sitting in Sherburne County Jail in Elk River, Minn., stripped of nearly all of his assets, awaiting sentencing from a federal judge.
It was a whirlwind year for Carlson and the Last Place on Earth, the head shop he has owned for more than 30 years. The store was shut down on July 19 by a judge’s order, and after Carlson’s Oct. 7 conviction on 51 federal charges, it appears unlikely that the store will ever reopen.
After a three-week trial, a Minneapolis jury found Carlson, 56, guilty of synthetic drug laws, labeling violations and money laundering. His girlfriend, Lava Haugen, was also convicted on four counts, and his son, Joseph Gellerman, on two.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge David Doty ruled that federal authorities could seize Carlson’s store, Mexico vacation property and millions of dollars from his bank accounts. Carlson remains in custody as he awaits sentencing, which has not yet been scheduled.
As Duluth civic and business leaders celebrated the verdict and the closure of what some considered a downtown nuisance, defense attorneys promised to fight the conviction. After sentencing, they are expected to appeal the case to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
2. Planes collide over Superior
It was a perfect evening for skydiving when two small planes carrying a total of nine experienced skydivers took off from Superior’s Richard I. Bong Memorial Airport on Saturday, Nov. 2.
What exactly went wrong is yet to be determined by federal investigators. What is known is that somewhere over Superior, the chase plane piloted by Blake Wedan came down on the back of the lead plane, piloted by Matt Fandler.
The skydivers, who had been preparing to jump, all parachuted safely to earth. So did Fandler, who had to abandon his severely damaged Cessna 182 as it broke apart; the fuselage crashed at the Head of the Lakes Fairgrounds. Wedan managed to land safely in the Cessna 185 he piloted, although it also was damaged. Fandler hit the ground hard and required 25 stitches to his face. Otherwise, no one was hurt.
The intrepid crews from Skydive Superior became instant media stars and were featured on NBC’s “Dateline” the following Friday, with footage from the skydivers’ helmet cams prominently featured. The skydivers sold their collective video to NBC for an undisclosed sum, reported by some news outlets to be in the neighborhood of $100,000; they said the money will go toward helping Skydive Superior resume operations.
3. Same-sex marriage legal in Minnesota
Judging from the laughs, the early-morning wedding attendees might have thought Tim Robinson was making a bit of a joke. But given the statewide struggle to get him to the altar to marry Gary Lundstrom in August, you knew that deep down, there was a tinge of sobering seriousness.
“Can we get that in writing,” Robinson said to Duluth Mayor Don Ness while pulling out a marriage certificate.
Ness pronounced Robinson and Lundstrom “legally married” in the state of Minnesota at 7:35 a.m. Aug. 1. It was another in a string of same-sex marriages in Duluth that day, some in the wee hours after such marriages were deemed legal in the state.
The Legislature passed the law in May. Advocates of same-sex marriage rode the coattails of a statewide vote in November 2012 in which a proposed amendment to the state constitution — defining marriage as between a man and woman only — failed to pass. The “Vote No” campaign carried into the spring and jubilation reigned at the Capitol on May 13 when legislators approved same-sex marriage effective Aug. 1. Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill to great fanfare the next day.
4. Mining projects continue to advance
What would be Minnesota’s first-ever copper-nickel mine continued to advance through the labyrinth of environmental review requirements in 2013, with PolyMet Mining’s revised Environmental Impact Statement completed and made public in December.
The environmental review is now open for public comments until March 13, with public meetings set in January for Duluth, Aurora and the Twin Cities.
Environmental groups and tribal resource agencies continue to raise questions over details of the PolyMet mine plan, especially the potential of acidic runoff affecting local waterways, saying too many details remain unresolved. Supporters say the revised project is sound and now is ready for approval and permits.
In Wisconsin, the proposed Gogebic Taconite project continued to advance to include sample drilling and application for permits to conduct test mining.
Gogebic wants to dig Wisconsin’s first modern taconite mine in southern Ashland and Iron counties. The project is supported by some local business and political leaders but also has faced stiff opposition from some tribal and environmental groups. The more than $1 billion facility would produce about 8 million tons of taconite iron ore annually at full production, rivaling Minnesota’s largest facilities.
5. Northland’s never-ending winter
On March 1, the News Tribune reported that snowfall in Duluth for the winter of 2012-13 was lagging nearly a foot below average. Oh, how things changed after that.
March brought 25.5 inches of snow, double the normal amount. And then came April, when the Duluth airport recorded 50.8 inches of snow — the most ever recorded in a single month in the city’s history.
For winter enthusiasts, the seemingly never-ending series of late-season storms provided unusual opportunities; cross-country skiers were out on the Birkebeiner trail near Hayward into May. But the never-ending winter also wreaked havoc on the Minnesota and Wisconsin fishing openers, high school sports schedules, golf courses and gardens.
The winter of 2013-14 picked up right where the previous one left off, with a prolonged early December storm dropping nearly two feet of snow at the Duluth International Airport and in excess of three feet along the North Shore. The storm closed schools for several days and was followed by several successive blasts of subzero temperatures.
6. Ongoing city-casino debate
After several bruising bouts in the courts, the city of Duluth and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa will continue to spar over a casino revenue-sharing agreement as we enter 2014.
Under a long-standing contract, the city had been receiving 19 percent of revenue from electronic slot machines at the Fond-du-Luth Casino. Duluth had used this funding stream — about $6 million per year — to pay for street improvements.
But in 2009, the band halted the payments after deeming them excessive and unlawful. The National Indian Gaming Commission agreed that the revenue-sharing agreement did not pass legal muster.
In 2013, the city of Duluth challenged the gaming commission finding by filing a federal suit. On Dec. 18, a court in Washington, D.C., agreed to hear the case, rejecting a motion from the U.S. Department of Justice to dismiss the suit, and setting the stage for a legal showdown likely to play out over the coming year.
Meanwhile, the casino dispute continued in other venues throughout 2013.
In January, the 8th District Court of Appeals ordered a District Court judge to re-examine her decision to waive future payments to the city but to require the band to make good on more than $10.3 million in back payments through April 2011, when an initial revenue-sharing agreement with the city expired. Upon revisiting the case, Judge Susan Nelson reached the same conclusion in October. But the band has filed an appeal.
7. Steve O’Neil succumbs to cancer
Steve O’Neil, a tireless advocate for the homeless, hungry and underserved residents, died in July after battling cancer for several months.
O’Neil, an unabashed progressive and three-term St. Louis County commissioner serving eastern Duluth, was 63 when he died July 16. He was praised as someone who worked to bring people together to solve problems, whether finding shelter for Duluth’s homeless or setting the county’s annual budget.
“Steve realized that if you want to create community, to move forward, you don’t demonize people. They are not the enemy because they disagree with you. You work with them,” Jim Soderberg, former executive director of the CHUM social services agency in Duluth, said the day of O’Neil’s death.
Duluth officials honored O’Neil earlier this month when breaking ground for a low-income housing and emergency shelter for Duluth families on East Fourth Street which will be named the Steve O’Neil Apartments.
O’Neil’s wife, Angie, has temporarily served in place of her husband on the county board. The position will be filled in a special election Jan. 14.
8. County employee accused major theft (tie)
Carlton County officials were met with questions and criticism in September when it was revealed that a county landfill employee was accused of embezzling upwards of $1 million over several decades. Joanne Marie Wappes, 62, of Cloquet was charged on Sept. 20 in State District Court with theft by swindle and embezzlement of public funds.
Authorities said Wappes, who worked as a clerk at the landfill for nearly 30 years, manipulated records to pocket excessive amounts of money.
The case took a strange twist when a man who twice burglarized Wappes’ home revealed that he had written a letter in January 2011 to a judge and prosecutors, detailing evidence of embezzlement he said he had discovered inside Wappes’ home. Carlton County deputies investigated, but were unable to find evidence of wrongdoing and did not execute a search warrant at Wappes’ house, Sheriff Kelly Lake said. Wappes was not caught until a separate complaint was filed in July 2013 and investigators conducted a sting operation.
The case has spurred procedural changes at the landfill. Wappes is next scheduled to appear in court for an omnibus hearing on Jan. 31.
8. Duluth mayor turns down raise (tie)
Mayor Don Ness made headlines in November when he turned down a 25 percent pay raise that had just been approved by the Duluth City Council. The increase would have boosted the mayor’s annual salary from $78,000 to $97,500.
In a Facebook post, Ness said: “Over the years, I’ve made a lot of tough and unpopular decisions that have asked for sacrifice from others to help solve our problems, and many in Duluth struggle with poverty or rising costs on a fixed income. I questioned if accepting a raise in this way would burden my ability to lead.”
The mayor’s office pay had remained unchanged since 2000, and Duluth City Councilor Sharla Gardner said it was long overdue for an adjustment. She noted that if the mayor had received pay increases commensurate with those afforded to unionized city staff since 2000, Ness would now be earning $103,740.
Although Ness has declined to accept the higher salary, it will be offered to whoever takes office as mayor after the next election, in 2015.
10. Beargrease off, then back on (tie)
Now they look like geniuses.
The new group that took over organizing the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon races this past fall couldn’t have asked for a better start to the 2013-14 winter season, as the region has seen record snowfall, virtually guaranteeing that the marathon and mid-distance races will start as scheduled Jan. 26.
The new leadership came in after it was announced in October that the races wouldn’t be run in January because of a lack of money. The race had been hampered by fickle winter weather in the recent past. A lack of snow resulted in a canceled race in 2012 and a two-month delay of the race in 2013.
Now, the office has been humming because of the snow and the new infusion of money into the race from sponsors, many who had stopped supporting the race as its organization struggled. And the start of the race has been moved back into Duluth after a few years of starting just north of the city.
10. School levies pass (tie)
It was a year for school referenda success throughout much in Minnesota, including here in the Northland.
Both the Duluth and Hermantown school districts convinced voters to approve tax increases — in Duluth for classroom expenses and in Hermantown for money that allows for new construction. Both efforts succeeded despite organized opposition.
On Nov. 5, Duluth voters passed two operating levies: one that maintained current taxpayer levels and one that increased them to garner an extra $1.8 million a year for the district for the next five years. The money is intended to hire more teachers to lower class sizes district-wide, update curriculum and do more to improve student achievement.
In Hermantown, 54 percent of voters approved a $48.9 building bond referendum. The district will build a new high school that connects to the old one — which will become the new middle school — and add on to the elementary school.
10. Moose decline continues unabated (tie)
The outlook for Northeastern Minnesota’s dwindling moose population continued to dim in 2013, with moose numbers dropping so fast that the state Department of Natural Resources opted to cancel the annual fall hunting season for the first time in four decades.
Last winter’s aerial surveys showed moose numbers had plummeted 35 percent in just one year, with an estimate of only 2,760 animals, down from 4,230 in 2012. The Northeastern Minnesota moose population was more than 9,000 as recently as 2006.
Researchers continued to report bad news into the spring and summer as many of the moose being studied using GPS transmitters perished — first from the rigors of being trapped and fitted with the collars and then, apparently, from various health problems and, especially, predation by bears and wolves. More than two-thirds of the young moose died during their first four months of life, leaving far fewer young moose than needed to sustain a healthy population.
News Tribune reporters John Myers, Tom Olsen, Peter Passi, Mike Creger, Jana Hollingsworth, John Lundy and Andrew Krueger contributed to this report.