July 15 is a day many people who live in Prophetstown probably would prefer to forget, but few will.
About 2:30 that Monday morning, a fire broke out in the city's historic downtown. The fire was under control by 7 a.m., but the damage was devastating.
Eight buildings in the 300 block of Washington Street had been destroyed. Businesses and apartments were gone. Two other buildings suffered smoke damage. The buildings that were destroyed were knocked down the same day, leaving a hole in the center of downtown.
The fire was so massive that by 4:50 that morning, only 10 feet of water – or about 45 minutes worth – remained in the Prophetstown water tower. Other area fire departments started bringing in water on tankers, and firefighters were pumping water from the Rock River to take to the scene. About two dozen other area departments aided the fight.
"All I know is I called for more help, more help, more help," Prophetstown Fire Chief Keith Crady said. "Paw Paw is one of the farthest [departments] I heard came. It got to the point where I needed tankers, and I just called the county and I said, 'Give me 10 tankers.' I don't know where they came from."
By the time the fire was out, the water towers in Prophetstown and Lyndon were drained, and Prophetstown's second well also had been used.
"It's just devastating for this small town," Prophetstown Mayor Steve Swanson said.
It didn't take long for investigators to determine how they thought the fire had started.
The day after the fire, police arrested two half-brothers who were staying with their father in Prophetstown for the summer. The boys, 16 and 12 years old, now each face 17 counts of criminal damage to property, one count of residential arson, and one count of arson – all felonies. Sauk Valley Media is not identifying the boys, because they are charged as juveniles.
Investigators said the brothers sparked the blaze by setting fire to paper and cardboard in a recycling bin behind Cindy Jean's Restaurant.
During a September court hearing, Whiteside County Assistant State's Attorney Carol Linkowski said the 16-year-old had been charged with arson at the age of 10 for setting a fire in a trash can in a boys bathroom. She also said evidence indicated that the boys had set three other fires in recycling bins around Prophetstown the night of the downtown blaze.
"I think we're just lucky none of the others took off as bad as this one did," Linkowski told Judge William McNeal.
Community leaders and many business owners immediately began talk of rebuilding. On the night of the fire, a meeting was held to discuss plans for the stretch of downtown that now was rubble.
The city bought the eight lots where buildings had been destroyed and will give them to developers or the former building owners who want to rebuild.
The phrase "Prophet Strong" was adopted by many residents, and covered the front of some T-shirts being sold to raise funds to help fire victims.
In November, the empty space in the downtown was filled with seven Christmas trees, each decorated with about 2,000 lights that were turned on and synced with Christmas music on Nov. 30, the start of the town's Christmas parade.
Swanson said the trees, which are between 15 and 23 feet tall, will remain as long as they survive or until rebuilding begins.
"I think it's changed everybody's hearts here in town – uplifted a little bit," Swanson said.
The town's resiliency was on display immediately. The night of the fire, about 240 people showed up for the annual Pat's Table dinner at Prophetstown United Methodist Church. The Rev. Cheri Stewart said the church had received so much food that its freezers were filling up.
"You can destroy things and stuff," Stewart said. "You can't destroy people's spirits."
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Sterling boy, 6, survives fall into sinkhole
When Nathan Woessner went to Fulton Unity Christian school for the first day of first-grade classes Aug. 19, it was nothing short of a miracle.
A little more than a month earlier, Woessner, 6, survived being buried for more than 3 hours in 11 feet of sand at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan City, Ind. Nathan’s parents, Faith and Greg Woessner, had taken the family to the Indiana Dunes. They were near the dune known as Mount Baldy around 4:30 p.m. when Nathan fell into a sinkhole. His parents said they didn’t see him as he was swallowed by the sand, but they saw him right before it “completely collapsed,” said park spokesman Bruce Rowe.
Firefighters reached Nathan just before 8 p.m. and pulled him out.
“It’s just miraculous that he’s alive,” Rowe said.
Nathan and his family returned to Michigan City on Aug. 28 for two ceremonies honoring the 139 people involved in his July 12 rescue.
“This is definitely overwhelming,” Greg said. “And as I stand here as a proud father, and look out at all of you, I see why Nathan was brought back to us.”
A second life sentence for Sheley
Nicholas Sheley, the Sterling man accused of killing eight people during a June 2008 crime spree, has now been sentenced twice to life in prison.
He received a second life sentence Jan. 16 from Judge J. Michael Meersman in Whiteside County Court for the bludgeoning death of Russell Reed, 93, at the victim’s rural Sterling farmhouse. In late 2011, Sheley had received a life sentence for murdering Ronald Randall of Galesburg.
Before Sheley was sentenced, Reed’s daughter-in-law, Bonnie Reed, called him an “animal.”
“I hope you look at this case the rest of your life and think of nothing but what you did,” she said in the packed courtroom. “In memory of Russell Reed, the first one that you killed, I hope you never forget what you did.”
Next, prosecutors will try Sheley in Rock Island County Court in the deaths of Brock Branson, 29; his fiancée Kilynna Blake; her 2-year-old son, Dayan; and Kenneth Ulve, 25. The four were killed in a Rock Falls apartment June 28, 2008. On Dec. 3, that trial was postponed until May 19.
Crundwell sentenced to 19 years, 7 months
Former Dixon Comptroller Rita Crundwell now lives in a federal prison in Waseca, Minn. She landed there in June, nearly 4 months after she was sentenced to serve 19 years, 7 months for wire fraud. She must serve at least 85 percent, or 16 1/2 years, of the sentence. That means she'll be at least 77 years old when she walks out of prison.
"I'd just like to say I'm truly sorry to the city of Dixon, to my family and my friends," Crundwell said in a tearful apology just before U.S. District Judge Philip Reinhard handed down her sentence on Feb. 14.
Reinhard had some words for Crundwell, as well, referring to her lavish lifestyle and her nationally renowned quarter-horse business.
"You showed much greater passion for the welfare of your horses than the people of Dixon you represented," Reinhard said in court. "You lived the lifestyle befitting a wealthy person, and you did this on monies that weren't yours."
In November, an appeals court panel rejected Crundwell's attempt to have her sentence reconsidered. It called her sentence "substantively reasonable." Next, Crundwell may ask that her appeal be heard by the entire 7th U.S. Circuit Court.
Ohio man shot, killed on I-88
A traffic stop along Interstate 88 near the exit for U.S. Route 30 ended in the driver being shot and killed and two officers being hospitalized.
At 10:44 a.m. Nov. 22, a state conservation officer assisted a man, later identified as Shane David Cataline, 30, of Toledo, Ohio, who was driving a minivan at Burns and Albany roads in Whiteside County. Afterward, Cataline called 911, making statements that prompted officers to check on him again.
The van later was spotted heading east on I-88, just west of Route 30, according to Robert Frazier, Region 1 commander for the Illinois Department of Resources’ conservation police.
During the stop on I-88, Frazier said, Cataline pulled an abrupt U-turn with his minivan, pinning a state trooper between his van and the trooper’s squad car.
With the trooper pinned, the conservation officer shot Cataline, Frazier said. Cataline was pronounced dead at the scene. The two officers were hospitalized, and treated and released.
Because of the continuing investigation by state police, the IDNR has not released the name of the officer who shot Cataline.
Lawsuit settlement yields $40 million for Dixon
On Sept. 25, the city of Dixon announced that it had reached a $40 million out-of-court settlement in its lawsuit against three former auditing firms and Fifth Third Bank. The city had claimed that the auditors and bank were negligent in not being aware of the theft of nearly $54 million over two decades by former Comptroller Rita Crundwell.
With $9.2 million more coming from the federal government's sale of Crundwell's assets, Dixon will have recouped more than $49 million. About $10.3 million of the settlement will pay for legal fees.
It didn't take long for residents to start talking about how much money could be spent. About 200 people attended an Oct. 10 meeting at Loveland Community House, suggesting a wide range of ideas such as paying off city debts, granting tax abatements, and spending for recreational projects.
The payoffs from the settlement began quickly. In early November, the city agreed to an early payoff of more than $12 million in bonds, ultimately saving nearly $4 million.
The city ridding itself of some debt is a "wonderful thing," Mayor Jim Burke said. "I think we've made it very clear to the public that retiring and getting rid of some of this debt was going to be a priority," he said. "So I don't think anybody will be surprised at the action that we're taking here on retiring this debt."
Dixon school teachers go on strike for 9 days
Instead of teaching in a classroom, Dixon High School science instructor Larry Lindenmier was walking a picket line Feb. 28.
“Nobody wants to be on strike here,” Lindenmier said. “It isn’t pleasant duty, but we don’t have a choice.”
A strike by Dixon teachers lasted 9 school days before a contract agreement was reached with the school board in the early morning of March 13. The strike was anything but pleasant: bickering in the press between the two sides, accusations by the board that teachers deliberately went on strike when state testing was scheduled, and claims by the teachers union that the school board met in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
In the end, a 4-year contract gave teachers pay increases in each of the next 4 years, had teachers paying more for health insurance, and preserved annual 4 percent salary increases in the 4 years leading to retirement.
“We’re pleased this is behind us,” Dixon schools Superintendent Michael Juenger said.
“It’s one of those things where each side walked away unhappy,” he said, “meaning it must’ve been a pretty good contract.”
Negotiating a teachers contract wasn’t the end to conflict in the district. Talks are at an impasse with the union that represents teachers’ aides, who have been working without a contract for 18 months.
And last week, the school board voted 4-2 to close Lincoln Elementary School, the district’s oldest building, at the end of this school year. The closure is a way of addressing the district’s $1.5 million deficit in the education fund.
Dixon city engineer resigns
City Engineer Shawn Ortgiesen, essentially Dixon’s top administrator at City Hall, resigned April 16, a week after he had been placed on leave for using a city credit card for personal expenses.
Ortgiesen, who also was the director of public works and personnel, had racked up $13,521.14 in personal expenses on the card from April 2007 to March. Of that amount, he had paid back $4,890.13, meaning he owed $8,630.83.
With his resignation, Ortgiesen attached a check for his remaining balance, which included interest calculated at 5 percent. The check totaled $9,157.38.
In a letter addressed to Mayor Jim Burke and city commissioners, Ortgiesen wrote: “I am truly sorry for breaking the trust of the city council, all city employees, and the community.”
Ortgiesen’s situation came to light during scrutiny of the city’s books and financial practices that resulted from the arrest of former Comptroller Rita Crundwell for stealing nearly $54 million.
In June, Lee County State’s Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller said Ortgiesen would not face criminal charges. “The evidence showed that Mr. Ortgiesen did not conceal or hide the charges,” she told SVM.
As common practice, Ortgiesen filed requisitions to record his credit card expenses. The city also did not have a credit card use policy until it created one in the month after Ortgiesen resigned.
Murder-suicide in Polo
The small city of Polo was shaken Sept. 16 when two bodies were found in a home on North Street.
Polo Police said Paul Busser Sr., 76, fatally shot Marcellene Jones, 73, in her home before hanging and fatally shooting himself. Jones’ body was discovered by a male friend who went to Casey’s General Store nearby and called 911 to report a possible shooting, Polo Police Chief Dennis Christen said. Busser’s body was found after a more extensive search of the home.
“She was just a very good person,” Jean Dawson, a neighbor, said of Jones. “I mean, she was always willing to do anything for anybody.”
Cities merge fire administrations
Gary Cook started as a Rock Falls firefighter 34 years ago. Now, he is the chief of both the Rock Falls and Sterling fire departments. In September, Cook took command of the Twin City Joint Fire Command, a consolidation of the administrative functions of the two departments.
“I was interim chief in Sterling for 3 years, and most of the changes have been developing for many years,” Cook said. “From the Rock Falls side, there has been additional paperwork, some budgeting and payroll changes, but the staff has really rolled with everything.”
That staff includes 18 firefighters in Sterling and 12 in Rock Falls, plus a deputy chief in each city. Cook splits his time between the cities, usually spending his mornings in Sterling and afternoons in Rock Falls.
The intergovernmental agreement that created the combined entity had been in the works since 2010.
Wescott defeats 2-term Rock Falls mayor
There was a changing of the guard in leadership in Rock Falls this year, and it came with a strong mandate.
Bill Wescott, the city clerk, won 75 percent of the vote in ousting two-term Mayor David Blanton in the April 9 election.
Wescott called the victory “a wonderful feeling.”
Blanton’s advice for Wescott? “I would say, listen to his aldermen,” Blanton said.
Vocal instructor in Dixon accused of sexually abusing student
A vocal instructor at Dixon’s VIVA! Performing Arts School was arrested Nov. 4 and charged with three counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse against one of his former students. Later, the president and the drama director of VIVA! were charged with failing to report the allegations. Dixon Police Chief Danny Langloss said the men knew about the instructor’s alleged sex abuse as early as this past spring.
Police say Robert K. Campbell, 31, of DeKalb, abused a then-16-year-old male student during the summer of 2012. Police say the student told them the abuse happened at the performing arts school.
Authorities said the student sent an email Nov. 3 to Dixon schools Superintendent Michael Juenger and other district administrators. Juenger then contacted Langloss, and the investigation began.
According to Langloss, Tim Boles, VIVA!’s drama director, told investigators that the student had told him of the alleged abuse in the spring, but the student asked him not to tell anyone, so he didn’t. Langloss also said police have statements from more than one person indicating that Curt Schmitt, president of the VIVA! board of directors, also knew about the allegations.
Both Boles and Schmitt are charged with failing to report the allegations. Boles turned himself in to police Nov. 16. Schmitt surrendered Dec. 20.
Dixon woman dies in house fire
An early-morning fire Nov. 1 destroyed a rural Dixon home and killed 58-year-old Louise Lopez-Landherr. Her body was found a few hours after the fire west of Dixon was put out.
The fire call came in at 4:19 a.m., according to the Lee County Sheriff’s Department. Dixon Rural Fire Chief Norris Tucker Jr. said it was a fully involved fire. “The house is mostly gone,” he said.
Lopez-Landherr’s husband, John Landherr, was not home at the time of the fire, according to neighbors at the fire scene.
Nord is Dixon’s first administrator
David Nord was hired Nov. 12 as the first city administrator in Dixon, something Nord called “a great honor.”
A 10-person hiring committee selected Nord from among 40 applicants. His hiring was approved unanimously by the Dixon City Council. Nord, who was the village administrator of Cherry Valley for 25 years, began work Nov. 13.
Dixon might not have a city administrator for long. Voters next November will decide whether the city will switch to a managerial form of government. The council approved putting the question on the ballot after it was recommended by a governmental task force that met regularly from May until August.
Oregon teen dies after party
An Oregon teen died Aug. 11 from injuries he suffered after being punched during an underage drinking party. Jon Williams, 18, would have been a senior at Oregon High School this year.
According to witnesses, Williams chased another person at the party, who then hit him in self-defense, which resulted in Williams falling and suffering head injuries. Williams was then carried back into the house, where he remained for hours before receiving medical attention.
In November, Ogle County State’s Attorney Mike Rock said no one will be directly charged with Williams’ death.