Norwalk Reflector: Corso’s raid, new fire station among year's top local stories in 2018
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Corso’s raid, new fire station among year's top local stories in 2018

By Norwalk Reflector staff • Dec 30, 2018 at 8:52 PM

Triumph and tragedy, success and failure — Huron County experienced those things and more in 2018.

Here is a review of the year’s stories that had the greatest impact on local residents:

1. Corso’s raid: More than 100 people were arrested June 5 when agents from Department of Homeland Security and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) descended upon Corso's Flower & Garden Center locations in Sandusky and Castilia. 

Agents enacted search warrants and detained people they suspect of being in the United States illegally. Other allegations included harboring and hiring of illegal aliens, aggravated identity theft and impersonation of U.S. persons. It represented the largest immigration sting in a decade.

Many of those 114 detained had been living with their families in Norwalk. 

After those detainees were sent to prisons in Youngstown and Michigan, community leaders, activists and lawyers mobilized to provide legal aid. Protests and counter protests took place around the area. Local churches and civic groups collected money and items for the affected families.

Fear also arose.

Because federal agents obtained addresses in the raid, “people are leaving their homes,” Norwalk pastor Elvin Gonzalez told the Reflector shortly after the raids. “That’s why people are afraid. That’s why people won’t come here … because they’re afraid since now they’re seeing immigration trucks all around.”

The raids sparked further debates on immigration issues, including in the form of columns and letters to the editor in this newspaper.

“The people were very clear when they voted for President Trump,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican from Urbana who represents Ohio’s 4th district, which includes Norwalk. “They want the border security wall done, they want to end chain migration, they want the visa lottery, they want to deal with sanctuary cities.”

Thanks to advocacy groups such as HOLA Ohio, many Corso’s workers obtained legal representation and bonds, allowing them to be freed — some after months of detainment.

Undocumented entry into the country is normally a civil offense, but 12 of the detainees were charged with federal crimes. Four pleaded guilty to illegal reentry, three of whom were to be deported.

The cases will continue in Immigration Court in 2019.

 

2. New fire station: The Norwalk Fire Department has a new station worth about $5.5 million, with $2 million of that coming from donations. It opened in the fall.

The 150-plus donations from individuals, families, businesses and community organizations were as large as $250,000 to as small as $40 left in an envelope with a note saying, “Thank you, firemen.”

“That’s the spirit of our community,” Chief John Soisson said during a well-attended grand opening and ribbon-cutting event in November. “This town steps up like nobody else.”

Architect Joe Weithman, while thanking the many people involved in getting the station built, said it’s “very unusual” to have such significant support from the community. He also said designing the building in some ways became a challenge as more people, businesses and organizations were “adding to the pie.”

“You guys should be proud,” Weithman added. “If your community didn’t give so much, we’d be done a lot quicker.”

The 17,000-square-foot facility at 108 Whittlesey Ave. replaces the station at 42 Whittlesey Ave. that was built in 1912. Firefighters closed the original building Nov. 7 with a moving “last call.”

Plans for building the new station started in 2008, but the recession caused the project to be shelved until 2015. That was when the Blue Ribbon Committee was resurrected. 

In March 2016, voters gave the go-ahead for the city to use of $3.5 million from a capital investment trust fund for the station to start the project. (The fund was created in the 1970s after Norwalk sold the former light plant.)

Another $2 million in donations and in-kind work covered the rest of the expenses.

 

3. Fatal fire: The year began on a tragic note when Rebecca and Bob Griggs Jr., along with their disabled adult son, James, perished Jan. 26 in a Norwalk house fire.

The Griggs were known for their caring nature, which led them to serve as a loving foster family, in addition to raising their own four children, including three who survive them — Rob (Cali) Griggs, of Sandusky, Tricia (Scott) Costanzo, of Norwalk, and Dan (Lucia) Griggs, of Norwalk.

“They have impacted many people’s lives through being foster parents,” Tricia Costanzo said. “The lives they impacted most were my brothers’ and mine. They showed us that marriage is worth it — it’s hard but if you put the time and work into them, that is the best gift to give to your kids. They taught us that everyone deserves a chance and then another one because people are flawed and make mistakes and that is OK. No one is perfect but we should try and be the best person we can every day.

“They showed us that family is not blood — to love the people in your life like they are family. Everyone has worth and can teach you something if you take five minutes to talk and listen to what people say.”

A memorial garden was planted in the Park Ridge Court cul-de-sac where the Giggs lived. Then a balloon-release ceremony took place in July before their house was demolished.

 

4. Changing of the guard: Dave Light retired from the Norwalk Police Department in February following 33 years of service — the last nine as chief. Mike Conney succeeded Light.

“It has been an honor and privilege to serve the citizens of Norwalk for the past 33 years,” Light said in his letter to city hall announcing his retirement. “I have worked for and with many wonderful people. I have enjoyed a very blessed career. While I still enjoy the job today as much as I did on my very first day, unfortunately, some things must come to an end.”

During his career, Light served as a detective for 12 years and then replaced Kevin Cashen as the chief in 2009.

“I wouldn’t be here without the sacrifices that (my wife) Kim and my kids made,” added Light, who was married in 1982.

“Dave was a great chief. He had the ability to reach out and connect with all the officers of every rank and meld them into an efficient team,” said Norwalk Law Director Stuart O’Hara, who has been in the office for 16 years.

A captain at the time, Conney was appointed as interim chief in February. He officially became the chief in June.

Conney, a lifelong Norwalk resident, and his wife Cindy celebrated their 32nd anniversary in May. “High school sweethearts” since they started dating at St. Paul, the couple have two sons, Storm and Grayson, and one grandson.

Conney’s lengthy career in law enforcement started in 1989 when he was a Norwalk auxiliary officer. He has been the commander of the special response team, in charge of the firearms program and supervisor of the dispatch center.

He was appointed as the executive officer in 2012. Conney graduated from the FBI National Academy in June 2017.

Conney said Light has been “a great mentor to me.”

“I wouldn’t be here without him,” Conney told the crowd at his swearing-in ceremony.

In December, Light announced he will run as a Democrat for mayor.

“This is not a political thing; this is doing what’s best for the city of Norwalk,” Light said. “I think there’s so much more that we can be doing that we’re not doing. … As a lifelong resident, I have always been an active member of our community. I have decided to run to give the people of our great city a true voice who will both listen to and address their concerns.”

As the year drew to a close, Light was the only Democrat seeking the mayor’s position.

The current mayor, Rob Duncan, is a Republican in the midst of his second four-year term. Light might not be his only opponent, however.

In early July, Norwalk City Councilman Dave Wallace declared his candidacy for mayor as a Republican, meaning there will be a primary in the spring if he and Duncan file to run. 

 

5: Sports success: Two high school teams advanced to the final four in their respective sports, while Cleveland’s three pro teams provided lots of excitement.

The Norwalk Truckers football team stormed out to a 7-1 start, only to lose the final two games of the regular season, costing them the Sandusky Bay Conference Lake Division championship.

But Norwalk responded in November with blowout wins over Bowling Green (42-14) and Rocky River (56-7) before beating Sandusky (20-17) in the Region 10 championship game to advance to the final four round for the first time in 44 years.

The Truckers suffered a 34-13 loss to fell to Kettering Alter in a state semifinal game.

Norwalk won the Class AA state championship in 1974, but the playoff format was just the state semifinals and title game. This season, the three wins are the most in program history.

“They played for each other and the program, and we’re better for it,” first-year Truckers coach Todd Fox said of his team. “When we can step away, we will be proud not only in making the state semifinals, but in showing we deserved to be here as well.”

The Monroeville volleyball team also advanced to the state semifinals.

Against New Bremen, Monroeville won the first two games, 25-19, 25-23, but then lost the next three by scores of 25-19, 25-20, 15-10. The Eagles finished their season with a record of 24-4.

In the late spring, LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to their fourth-straight NBA Finals, where they lost to Golden State. In the off season, James defected the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency. This year, the Cavaliers are one of the worst teams in the league.

The Cleveland Indians won their third-straight American League Central Division title. However, they were swept by the Astros in the division series.

But as the year drew to a close, the Cleveland Browns were generating the most excitement — and hope.

Led by quarterback Baker Mayfield, whom the Browns made the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, the team went 7-8-1 — a remarkable turnaround, considering Cleveland had gone 4-44 in the previous three season. The Browns even stayed in playoff contention until the second-to-last week of the season.

 

6. Maple City Ice strike ends: A lengthly labor dispute ended in the year’s first month.

“The Maple City Ice Co. strike is over,” company president Pat Hipp told the Reflector at the time. “The Teamsters union representing the striking workers made an unconditional offer to return to work effective Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, which the company accepted. Thank you to our many loyal employees and customers who supported us during this time.”

Members of Teamsters’ Union Local 20 at Maple City Ice Co. went on strike Sept. 1, 2017. The main issue involved the failing Central States Pension Plan.

The drivers had said they have earned the money the company puts into the pension plan. Hipp once said Maple City Ice doesn’t want to throw money into a failing plan.

One driver had said the drivers gave up pay-raises for pension money during the last three contracts. He also said that amounted to $8,300 of their money — not Maple City Ice’s — that goes into the Central States pension plan per year.

On the first day, a shelter for striking drivers was erected on the corner of the company’s property on Cleveland Road. It was manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the entire strike. As the weather got colder, the men used a burn barrel.

As many as 15 drivers were on strike at one point.

Thirty-some days into the strike, Hipp said Maple City was “continuing to deliver beer to all of our accounts, with the help of family members and friends.”

In other Norwalk business happenings in 2018, two restaurants — Sidelines Sports Eatery and Pub and Main Street Cafe — opened; Sherri’s Coffee House and Gaymont Nursing Center each came under new ownership; and Colonial Flower Shoppe, Family Video, Action Auto Supply and Amez Boutique all closed.

Fisher-Titus Medical Center also saw a wave of change. In addition to concluding its five-year relationship with the Cleveland Clinic Heart and Vascular Institute, the hospital saw new leadership take the helm when Dr. Brent W. Burkey was named president and Matt Gross the CEO of Fisher-Titus Health, both replacing the retired Lorna Strayer.

 

7. Highway worker killed: The death of a 24-year-old Greenwich woman shocked and saddened local residents. 

Teresa M. Howell was hit and killed by a tractor-trailer on Dec. 7 while performing guardrail work on U.S. 33 in Union County. She was in her third year of employment at Lake Erie Construction.

“She meant a lot to everyone here,” company treasurer Mike Bleile said. “She was just a wonderful person.”

Bleile said Howell’s energy and work ethic “were admired by everyone she met.”

Howell left behind her boyfriend, Cyle Leach, and two young sons, Leland and Chevy.

“This devastating loss is made even more profound by those who knew her because of her invincible spirit and infectious attitude, which allowed her to be both a loving mother and a construction laborer determined to never be outworked by anyone she worked with,” Bleile added.

The preliminary investigation revealed the truck driver drove over several orange safety cones that had been placed in the righthand lane to protect Lake Erie Construction workers and then kept going after Howell was hit.

About 90 minutes later, the tractor and trailer were found in a warehouse area in Columbus, nearly 27 miles from the crash site. While authorities know the identity of the male driver, they aren’t releasing his name because he hasn’t been charged.

After the investigation is complete, the case will be presented to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office for the consideration of charges.

 

8. Stolen inheritance: A local teacher was convicted of stealing more than $100,000 from an inheritance fund for a family friend’s two sons.

Stacie L. Bement, 45, of 50 Pleasant St., Wakeman, pleaded guilty in August to two counts of grand theft and five charges of forgery as part of plea deal with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which prosecuted the case. 

Three months later, the longtime special education teacher at Edison High School was sentenced to 180 days in the Huron County Jail as part of her two years of probation. She resigned as a special education teacher at Edison High School so she could access her retirement to pay back the money.

The charges orientated from the theft of money from an inheritance fund left for Magnus and Javyn Mortensen by their father Mike. He created the inheritance fund in 2007, before he died of cancer, to help provide for his sons’ futures.

His best friend, Bement’s husband Jerry, was the custodian for the account until his sons reached the age of 18. But when Magnus Mortensen came of age he found out there wasn’t any money left in the account.

An investigation by the Norwalk Police Department determined Stacie Bement transferred money from the inheritance into her personal account by forging her husband’s signature multiple times between 2008 and 2012.

As part of the plea agreement, she had to repay the full amount of the stolen inheritance to Mortensen. Also, prosecutors dismissed seven counts of forgery and one charge of grand theft.

Jerry Bement, who works as a social studies teacher at Norwalk Middle School, was not charged.

“I never meant to hurt anyone and my poor choices were never intended to be malevolent,” she told Judge Jim Conway at her sentencing. “At the time I was frightened and alone and turned to somebody else’s money to assist with our own financial strains … I always had the intention of paying the money back but before I knew it, too much time had past and too much money had been taken.”

She apologized for what she did and spoke about the toll her actions have had on her personal life, including the impending end of her marriage, the bullying of her son and a damaged relationship with her daughter.

“I’m glad it’s resolved and that my boys are getting back the money they deserve,” Billie Mortensen said.

Two other local criminal cases — both involving manslaughter — received significant media attention in 2018:

• In October, Joshua W. Stamm, 37, of Florida, was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the death of Michael Sheppard Jr. — a Perkins Township man reportedly killed in 2003 during a drug deal gone bad.

The body of Sheppard, who was 34 years old at the time, still has not been found.

Stamm’s two co-defendants — Scott D. Hall, 46, of Clyde, and Adam J. White, 36, of Sandusky — have jury trials scheduled for March 5. Each faces murder charges.

Stamm, at the same Huron County Common Pleas Court hearing, pleaded guilty to an amended charge of involuntary manslaughter. He, too, had been facing two counts of murder. His sentence will be served at the same time as one he received for a weapon’s violation in Florida.

As part of his plea deal, Stamm provided information on what occurred on the night of Sheppard’s death. He reportedly told authorities Sheppard was shot multiple times during an attempted marijuana sale and his body was buried in the area of Fox Lane — a private road located off U.S. 250 between Norwalk and Milan, just south of the Erie County line.

Three days after Stamm’s conviction and sentence, authorities were digging in the Fox Lane area. Authorities have been tight-lipped about what, if anything, was found.

“Because the prosecution against the two remaining defendants is still pending, I am very limited in what I can say about the investigation and any evidence in this case,” said Jill Del Greco, spokeswoman for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), a division of the attorney general’s office.

Sheppard’s mother, Milan resident Rosalie Gottwald, said she and her family were “shocked” and “very disappointed” in Stamm’s sentencing, adding “he didn’t really get anything out of it.”

Gottwald also said “no one believes he (Shepperd) was even buried there” in the Fox Lane area.

“The experts don’t believe he was buried there and the family doesn’t believe he was buried there,” she said without elaborating.

• In November, Trent W. McCullough, most recently of 3741 Prospect Road, New London, was sentenced to 66 months in prison — 30 months for involuntary manslaughter and 36 months for a gun specification — for the death of his friend and neighbor.

On Jan. 4, 2017, McCullough called 9-1-1 and reported his friend, George Ely, had suffered an accidental, self-inflicted .45-caliber gunshot wound to the abdomen, according to Huron County sheriff’s deputies’ reports. After speaking to McCullough, Sheriff Todd Corbin learned the wound likely wasn’t self-inflicted.

“I actually interviewed Mr. McCullough and during my conversation he was overcome by the grief that his friend was injured,” Corbin said at the time. “He admitted that he didn’t mean to shoot his friend.”

During the sentencing, Conway told McCullough, “You have not shown any level of remorse.”

 

9. Historic church razed: The Catholic Diocese of Toledo rejected a would-be savior for the St. Sebastian church in Bismark, and a grassroots effort to save the structure ended in November when it was torn down.

The church was closed in 2005 as part of a clustering in the diocese, which also resulted in the closing of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Reed Township — another church that was ordered to be demolished. Parishioners of the two parishes were asked to attend a third area church, St. Gaspar on County Road 46 in Bellevue.

In February, former St. Sebastian parishioners appealed to the pope in their fight to save the 171-year-old building. That move delayed the start of demolition, which had been scheduled for that month.

Supporters were trying to prevent the church from being razed and to transfer the financial responsibility of its maintenance and care to a third party, allowing the building to be used as a chapel for events such as funerals and weddings without being “burdensome on the parish of St. Gaspar del Bufalo.”

A protest at the diocese offices in Toledo was “well attended” and parishioners delivered a petition that included more than 700 signatures.

Angela Phillips, whose father and other family members were parishioners of this church, sought to purchase the church from the diocese and maintain it as a chapel at her own expense. In 2016, the diocese rejected her offer of $300,000.

“It’s a travesty what is happening in the Toledo diocese,” Phillips told the Reflector. “Catholics in the Toledo area need to wake up as their church could be next. It appears that the diocese railroaded this decision, and I am committed to using all means at my disposal, including the Vatican, to save this 160-year-old church.”

She said the church was “perfectly fine” except for a “small repair” needed that would cost about $80,000 — a fee Phillips and other supporters were willing to pay. She added that the parish’s bills were being paid and it was “doing well financially.” However, she said she found the diocese no longer wanted to fund a clergyman for the location.

Her late father, Ralph Phillips, purchased the school and the houses across the road from St. Sebastian at auction for $80,000 and deeded it back to the parishioners and let them run it. The basement of the school is now used for occasional Sunday brunches.

“Mr. Phillips was a dear friend,” Deb Bumb, president of the Bismark Senior Community Center, told the Reflector. “He even offered to buy the church for an additional $200,000 but the diocese turned him down. Since then we have retained lawyers and tried everything to save the church. We have exhausted everything.”

In November, supporters learned the Vatican would not hear their case, so they conceded, ending their 10-month fight. The church was leveled that month.

Money that had been raised to restore the church will be earmarked for the construction of a non-denominational chapel.

 

10. Wind energy saga: Area residents are passionate yet divided on wind turbines.

Signs for or against wind energy dot the landscape of rural areas in Huron County as well as its neighbors to the west.

Proponents say wind farm projects will benefit the local economy, job rates, schools and residents “for generations to come.” Clean, renewable energy is another plus.

Opposers say the costs — potential health problems, harm to bird and bat populations, land use issues and nuisances such as shadow flicker — outweigh the benefits.

Both sides have had their say at multiple community meetings, forums and in letters to the editor in this newspaper.

Apex, which has an office in Bellevue, is the company behind the Emerson Creek Wind Project, which would put between 65 to 85 wind turbines in Huron and Erie counties. Apex’s other projects are Republic Wind in Sandusky and Seneca counties.

A Greenwich-area wind farm project, meanwhile, was renamed Crossroads Wind Power LLC.

The company in charge of it, Maine-based Swift Current, is leasing 4,000 acres in Greenwich Township for 25 wind turbines. The first phase of construction is expected to start in the summer of 2019, with the more active work taking place May through September 2020.

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