Join The Western News team in taking a look back at the biggest stories of the second half of 2019.
Elks Lodge closes
Citing dwindling participation, officials closed the Libby Elks Lodge and liquidated its property.
The Lodge was put on probation in July 2018 and with a dearth of candidates for its leadership positions last year the decision was made to shutter the organization, said William “Bim” Lindsey, a past District Deputy to the Grand Exalted Ruler and Trustee Chair.
“When the older officers left, no one remained to mentor the younger officers and when the membership couldn’t provide a viable slate of officers, the decision was made,” he said.
Money was never a problem, Lindsey told The Western News.
The 116 current members were given 18 months to transfer their membership to other lodges. Revenue made from the sale of the organization’s building and its contents would be placed in a trust, available if members decided to reform the chapter.
The hemp boom arrives in Lincoln County
Residents disheartened by the steady loss of industry got a boost when Texas-based cannabidiol oil producer Isotex announced it would open up shop in Libby.
In a poetic twist, the company opted to buy the old Stinger building and convert it into a hemp processing plant. Stinger arrived in Libby in 2009, promising needed jobs and economic stimulation. It laid off employees and left town in 2013.
Shortly after announcing the purchase of the building, Isotex held a job fair event at the Libby Job Service. Company officials initially planned on hiring 20 people to work at the plant, but indicated that they already had plans for expansion.
An extract necessary to create CBD oil, which is known for potential health and medicinal qualities, would be procured at the plant. But the biomass leftover from the process could be sold to make other consumer products.
Pool plan makes a splash
A group of Libby residents unveiled plans to garner enough community support and financial backing to construct a multimillion-dollar aquatic center.
Known as the Kootenai Wellness and Aquatic Center (KWAC for short) group, members launched a blitzkrieg public relations campaign to drum up backing for the project. Organizers unveiled three potential designs for the future facility, varying in price and amenities.
While details about the proposal remain murky, at best, group members hoped to fund construction through private donations, erect the building on public land and then turn it over to local authorities to run. Potential deals could involve land swaps between the county and city, and a possible mill levy to cover daily operational costs.
The public relations campaign climaxed with a survey sent out to residents to gauge support in the community, but the group has gone quiet in the weeks since. At last check, organizers were focusing their efforts on putting the mill levy question before voters in June.
Loggers buck Broncs
In their final game of the regular season, the Libby Loggers toughed out an 8-6 win over the Frenchtown Broncs at home.
The mud-soaked matchup, which began just as a long-threatening storm finally broke in Libby, fell right into head coach Neil Fuller’s game plan. He had hoped weather conditions might dampen Frenchtown’s lightning quick offense.
Despite the win, senior quarterback Jeff Offenbecher was sidelined with an injury. Junior Jay Beagle stepped in to keep the Loggers’ victory within grasp, helped mightily by classmate Dawson Young and sophomore Ayden Williamson.
Offenbecher was later taken to the hospital and forced to watch the Logger’s offseason run from the sidelines while recovering from his injuries.
Kendall maintains innocence
A local man pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the alleged assault on his girlfriend in 2014 that left her permanently injured and the community shocked.
Jeremiah Kendall of Libby pleaded not guilty to felony charges of aggravated assault and tampering with or fabricating evidence in Lincoln County District Court. Authorities arrested Kendall shortly after he was released from prison after finishing up a sentence for another charge.
Officials allege Kendall viciously beat his then-girlfriend and waited more than a day to bring her to the hospital. Kendall told authorities the victim injured herself by falling after a night of drinking.
But the medical team that evaluated her concluded the injuries were inconsistent with a fall.
Authorities also accuse Kendall of using the victim’s phone to post photos and delete text messages while she was in a medically induced coma.
Community mourns Todd Berget
Longtime teacher and local artist Todd Berget died after suffering a medical emergency while driving, prompting residents to craft makeshift memorials across Libby.
Berget, known for his creativity, love of community and passion for education, died at age 59. He was responsible for a plethora of community projects, including the collection of metal eagles adorning Libby.
After his death, several were bedecked in black sashes.
“There is only one Todd Berget,” said Yvonne Moe Resch, who often accompanied the man when he dressed up as a Sasquatch and wandered the area woods to the delight of onlookers. “You will be missed beyond words.”
Loggers axe Butte Central in playoffs
The Libby Loggers routed the Butte Central Maroon in their playoff opener, 49-28.
Junior quarterback Jay Beagle, filling in for injured senior Jeff Offenbecher, led the Loggers to an early lead. Aided by classmate Dawson Young and sophomore Hunter Hoover, Beagle saw the Loggers stifle the Maroon on both sides of the ball.
“He, by far, played the best game of his life,” said coach Neil Fuller of Young. “I’m so proud of him.”
Beagle gave credit to his offensive line for the team’s victory.
“We just played our hearts out,” he said.
Deputies uncover allegations of years of abuse after shooting
A Trego man shot by his wife in October was charged with multiple felonies after authorities learned she allegedly suffered years of abuse at his hands.
Jacob F. Morris, 32, was charged with four counts of assault with a weapon and one count of partner or family member assault, first offense. He later pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Authorities first began investigating after they responded to a reported shooting in Trego. There they found Morris suffering a gunshot wound, who pleaded with law enforcement, according to court documents, to keep his wife from hurting him any more.
But investigators spotted evidence of abuse on her. After several interviews, authorities learned she had been the victim of physical abuse for years.
During the night of the shooting, the two had argued and Morris allegedly threatened to “club her upside the head with the claw side [of a hammer],” court documents said. When Morris temporarily left the family home, the victim fetched a .45 caliber handgun. She opened fire upon his return.
“It was the look he had,” the victim told authorities. “It was not like any other time.”
After being flown to Kalispell for medical treatment, Morris was held on a $500,000 bond.
Former Logger inducted in Grizzlies Hall of Fame
Vince Huntsberger, who led the Libby Loggers before a standout college career at the University of Montana, maintains his gridiron success was borne out of a team effort.
Regardless, his alma mater saw fit to induct the former All-American who holds a record 393 career tackles at the University of Montana, into its hall of fame this past autumn.
“I’m one of [many] people on the team,” he said prior to the induction banquet. “It’s great to get a personal award, but it’s a reflection of your team.”
During his time on the Grizzlies, the team won four Big Sky titles and the 2001 Division I-AA National Championship. Along with being named to several All-American teams, he also earned his college league’s defensive MVP.
Despite of his success in athletics — or perhaps because of it — Huntsberger went on to become an emergency room physician. He credits football with teaching him the importance of working hard, forging ties with teammates and the need for open lines of communication.
“It was a very positive thing — I got a lot out of football,” he said. “The memories I have obtained through football and the life skills it gave me … it’s been huge for me and my family. It’s been a very positive thing in my life and I’m really glad I played.”
Asbestos crisis casts long shadow
As the Environmental Protection Agency prepared to handoff efforts to mitigate asbestos contamination in Lincoln County, residents looked back on the decades spent coming to terms with the damage done by the W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine.
“To every blue-collar worker at the time, the mine was a way to feed their families,” said Libby native Gayla Benefield, who spearheaded efforts to expose the danger of the mines. “But if someone had told them their work might kill their families, I don’t think anyone would have signed on.”
Benefield shared her investigation into the health risks posed by the vermiculite mining operation with regional media outlets and filed a wrongful death claim against Grace. A jury awarded her $250,000 for the death of her mother after she presented reams of evidence that company officials failed to disclose the danger of the mines.
And state and federal officials descended upon Lincoln County to begin cleaning up what more than a few have deemed the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Still, decades later, some are hopeful the community is moving beyond the crisis.
“We are tired of being seen as the sick and dying town,” said County Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1). “There is a new energy here. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s everywhere, and it isn’t asbestos dust.”
Volunteer ambulance service withdraws from talks
Facing a shortage in volunteers for the county’s trio of ambulance services, county commissioners hoped to gather representatives from the area’s medical agencies for a discussion of possible solutions.
The get-together was intended to also iron out problems with the rising number of medical transports from Cabinet Peaks Medical Center to Kalispell. The trips, which often fall on the volunteer ambulance services, mean dispatching a crew and a vehicle for upwards of five hours, stretching manpower thin.
But, shortly before they were set to meet, officials with Libby Volunteer Ambulance Service withdrew from the parley citing legal advice. Jeff Holder, agency president, had earlier cited concerns about the gathering, namely that county officials were looking at doing away with the services.
County Commissioner Jerry Bennett (D-2) was hopeful he could convince the Libby service to come back to the table. Its counterparts in Troy and Eureka remain engaged, he said in December.
“We just want to take a good look at that [situation] and maybe get some recommendations as to how maybe we could adapt the services,” Bennett said. “I don’t have any agenda here. It’s just that people expect that when they call 911 — whether it’s the sheriff’s office or the ambulance — that someone is going to show up.”
Nordicfest no more
After a 34-year run, organizers of Libby’s annual Nordicfest announced the end of the festival.
Citing a lack of volunteers and diminishing attendance, Ray Eanes, president of Nordicfest Heritage Festival’s board, said September’s event would be its last. The group still plans to dole out scholarships to area students each year.
“We really have tried the past few years to keep it going,” Eanes said. “It really has come time to let it go.”
Nordicfest began in 1985 as the brainchild of June McMahon, a writer and ad sales staff member at The Western News. She envisioned a festival that would tout the region’s strong Scandinavian heritage while simultaneously boosting the local economy.
When Eanes joined the effort in 1997, there were 22 people on the committee tasked with organizing the event. That number declined sharply in recent years, leading to the decision to end the festival.
“If we had somebody who would take over, it would be different, but right now there’s nobody in charge of it,” said fellow organizer Gina Huffman.
Blaze leaves one dead
A Kootenai Vista Road resident and her seven dogs died in a mobile home fire that left the structure a total loss, according to officials with the Libby Volunteer Fire Department.
Authorities responded to the blaze after a neighbor reported it. About 24 firefighters launched aggressive interior attacks in an attempt to find and extricate the homeowner.
Three water tenders, an engine and the department’s mobile command center eventually were called to the scene. Libby Volunteer Ambulance Service and the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office also responded.
Investigators said there were several potential sources of ignition in the home, including smoking materials, candles and portable heaters. The home lacked smoke detectors, officials said.